Setting the case for a legal identity for all (ep. 1)

August 2, 2022

More than a billion people in the world have no legal identity – no way to prove who they are. The United Nations has pledged to fix this.

More than a billion people in the world have no legal identity – no way to prove who they are. The United Nations has pledged to fix this.

This is Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 and 2030 is the deadline.

The UN’s outgoing person in charge of legal identity, Niall McCann from the UNDP, starts our exploration of the importance of ID and where we are on that SDG 16.9 target. And whether there a billion people with no identity:

“If you’re talking about people that are legally invisible, well then counting them is quite challenging”

What is legal identity?

Can you have legal identity without birth registration?

What is ‘proving yourself before the law’?

Why are you so vulnerable if you don’t have ID?

We also hear a sneak preview from some of the other larger organizations we’ll have on the show in future episodes: the World Bank and UNICEF.

03:34 Niall McCann, outgoing Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity, UNDP 05:58 Legal identity before a court

09:00 Vulnerability of those with no ID

13:10 Target to register 350 million of the billion without ID by 2025

15:36 Faher Elfayez, ID4D, World Bank

17:15 Cornelius Williams, Director of Child Protection, UNICEF

Check out the ID4Africa YouTube Channel

Find out more about the podcast and the importance of legal identity at

Produced and hosted by Frank Hersey at Biometric Update.

FRANK HERSEY: Welcome to ID16.9, a space dedicated to exploring the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 for everyone on earth to have a legal identity by 2030, which means this is a podcast that tries to understand why a billion people have no formal way of proving who they are, how this affects their lives and when the situation might improve.

You may think that you don’t use ID very often, but so much of your life now is probably built on processes your parents started for you when you were just a baby or child. But what if they hadn’t?

SDG 16.9 wants everyone to have the equal opportunity illegal identity brings. We’ll be discussing the ideas, projects, problems and hopefully progress towards this goal. I’m your host Frank Hersey, a reporter at Biometric Update, the team behind this podcast. In this first episode, to ease us all in gently, we’ll be hearing from some of the larger organizations involved in trying to reach the goal, beginning with the UNDP which is responsible for legal identity within the UN. They’re going to help start explaining some of the basics such as what a legal identity is.

NIALL MCCANN: Who would you be before the court system If you ended up before the court system. You know, we say legal identity in that your identity before the law.

FRANK HERSEY: We’ll hear from the World Bank division for identity on why legal identity is so big an issue…

FAHER ELFAYEZ: Because identification and civil registration are key to making progress in many other SDG targets such as those related to poverty alleviation, women’s economic empowerment, social safety nets and migration.

FRANK HERSEY: … and whether we’re on track for every single human to have a legal ID by 2030.

CORNELIUS WILLIAMS: In Africa we will not be able to meet the targets for the SDG, so we do need a disruptive process.

FRANK HERSEY: So we will be hearing about disruptive processes and why there’s still plenty of scope. So why is Biometric Update doing a podcast on SDG 16.9?

Well, we cover digital identity and biometrics from the latest technologies to regulation and social impact. We do already cover the SDG, especially when looking at foundational or functional identity — more on that another time — and in following organizations such as ID4Africa.

But so much of what we look at relies on people having some form of original or breeder identity document. We keep hearing how there’s a billion people without this legal identity and thought we’d go in a little deeper to see if there’s any more movement on this figure and if not why not. And, as it affects so many people, a podcast seems a good way to hear from them.

But first there’s a bit of groundwork. To help us get a clear understanding of legal identity right from the start, we’re joined now by Niall McCann, Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity at the United Nations Development Program or UNDP. Niall, welcome to the podcast.

NIALL MCCANN: Thanks a lot. Nice to be here.

FRANK HERSEY: We’ve heard that the top line of SDG 16.9 is to provide a legal identity for all including birth registration by 2030. Could you start us off with the UN’s definition of legal identity and even birth registration?

NIALL MCCANN: It’s a pretty good question actually, Frank. As you just said yourself there, the SDG target is described as legal identity for all, comma, including birth registration, comma. That raises the very obvious question, can you have legal identity without birth registration?

And that was believe it or not a question that ourselves in the UN and colleagues in the World Bank actually discussed and even debated for quite some time around about 2017 and 2018 because we felt like we needed to come up with more of a working definition that would allow us to measure just how successful our efforts and by when I say our efforts, I mean the efforts of the UN, the World Bank and the international development community on achieving this target would be.

So we have expanded now upon legal identity and the definition to basically say it is the ability of or at least legal identity is the basic characteristics of a person including date of birth, place of birth, name, sex, as recorded by a legal civil registration authority and as therefore authenticated by the issuance of a certificate registering the child’s birth.

Now, just because one had one’s birth registered, and indeed just because one had one’s birth registered and one received a birth certificate does not necessarily mean that you can go through life then with legal identity, if you have lost your birth certificate or it was destroyed or it was stolen or you destroyed it yourself out of fear of persecution.

You know, if you were identified as member of a targeted minority, for example, you may consider it in your interests to destroy your own birth certificate, etcetera. So basically, you can have many people then whose birth was registered and who did receive a birth certificate, but for whatever reason, later on in life are not in a position to refer back to that birth registration and then end up as children as teenagers or as adults with no means to prove who they are.

So then when we say legal identity is an identity in the legal sense, ie. to give it the most blunt example, who would you be before the court system if you ended up before the court system? You know, we we say legal identity in that your identity before the law. For people that never had their birth registered or had their birth registered but can’t prove it because they don’t have their certificate these days, they are obviously in a in a very, very vulnerable situation and of course across the lifecycle our colleagues in the World Bank, their latest data estimates that there is in fact up to one billion people in the world still in this situation you know not able to prove who they are.

So of course this is where the legal identity target came from and the gap that we’re trying to close, this global legal identity gap. For adults, again, that are not in possession of a birth certificate, it really doesn’t make that much sense for countries to take a 30 or 40 year old person and say well quick we better, you know, register this person’s birth because that would have taken place decades ago.

And in fact obviously what a lot of countries have done in the last number of years, they have been either operating various forms of what we would call a national population register or a national identity register, and it has different names and different countries, but more recently we have seen countries introduce various forms of national ID card, schemes, or indeed now in some countries like India for example with the Aadhaar program, they have these digital ID schemes quite similar to a to a national ID card scheme except there isn’t really a document, there isn’t really a card issued.

The person’s biometric data is taken, they’re enrolled in the system and then they’re issued with a kind of a number for example and then they’re in the system and they have a digital identity that has been formally issued by the state and in our discussions with the World Bank and with other UN agencies, obviously we accepted then that for countries that do provide that service for the citizens then of course those people have legal identity even if their birth was never registered or even if they cannot locate their birth certificate at this point.

FRANK HERSEY: That was a fantastic introduction not only to what legal identity is, but the challenges already in place around the world and you know how you deal with adults, it’s not just for children, the complexities of digital identities, the differences between countries as well. So that was a really, really great introduction for us. I just wanted to ask then in this first episode, why does this need to be part of the Sustainable Development Goals?

NIALL MCCANN: Well, I mean, people that do not have legal identity, people that cannot prove who they are, in other words, tend to end up incredibly vulnerable then in in society. And for for in obvious cases, for example, like in employment law, not just employment law and employment practice. If you cannot prove who you are, your chances of getting a job in the formal economy are incredibly small across the world.

And so what tends to happen then is that people that cannot prove who they are, tend to get funneled towards the gray economy and that means of course no protection then with regards to social insurance, for example, or indeed no protection under the law with regards to enjoying their employment rights, the rights not to be fired for particular reasons or their rights to be entitled to, you know, a period of in lieu of, or notice period before they there their employment is terminated etcetera. And then if you go beyond the employment arena, when you take things like inheritance, inheriting property, inheriting money from dead relatives. If you’re not in a position to prove who you are, well then how are you going to be able to access those particular rights over in the political sphere? If you cannot prove who you are your chances being able to register to vote for example or indeed run for elected office are almost impossible. Can you access public health services if you cannot prove who you are will a hospital accept you, etcetera? So if you go across the entire sphere of public services that a citizen may be entitled to or a resident foreigner in the country, if you’re not able to prove who you are, then it’s incredibly difficult for you to be able to access these services and this is why this was included in the Sustainable Development Goals and rightly so we would argue.

FRANK HERSEY: Well I think there we have it really, I think it’s really just one sentence in the SDG but there’s so much packed into it. I just wondered just briefly, as we’re going to be hearing from you later in the series, are we on track for 2030 for SDG 16.9.

NIALL MCCANN: Well it’s actually very difficult to tell Frank. I know that’s not a very satisfactory answer. Our colleagues in the bank, they have their global data sets. They’re constantly on a yearly basis trying to calculate the latest figures. But if you think about this for a minute, if you’re talking about people that are legally invisible, well then counting them is quite is quite challenging, you know, and we’ve actually been working within the UN ourselves trying to come up with a similar way to count alongside the BankÕs methodology, a similar way to count the total number of the global population without legal identity.

And it is quite challenging because of course proving who you are might be different in different countries and in different contexts. You might have for example, a document that certain representatives of the state might accept as proof of who you are but who other representatives of the state will not accept.

For example, you could be in a country where the police now and again stop people on the streets and ask to ask people to show documents. Now, maybe perhaps you are in possession of something like a voter ID card that you have managed to acquire via a voter registration process. That might have been, you know, fairly haphazard that that document could have no photograph. It might not necessarily have a date of expiration, it might be a number of years old at this point. But it is possible that alongside a kind of an on-the-spot interview a police officer might accept that as proof of who you are and then in that context you have been accepted as a person before the law. The law being the police officer in this case. But you will not be able to with that same voter ID card for example, I don’t know, inherit property or marry somebody or many other public services, you know.

So the actual question of how in fact do we know when somebody has proven who they are? That’s different in different countries and then calculating the overall number is quite difficult. Within the UN we wanted to we set a target for ourselves to try and get 350 million people of these one billion or so registered by the end of 2025. But to be very honest with you, it has also been very difficult in the COVID-19 context now to be able to count this population and indeed of course as we know, even counting the number of COVID-19 deaths has proven to be quite challenging. And you know, I think the Lancet and The Economist for example recently have, have calculated what they believe to be the real number of COVID-19 deaths and it’s almost three times what the official figure is. So I’m afraid giving hard data on how successful we have been to date in closing the global identity gap and will we reach the legal identity for all by 2030 is quite difficult to ascertain at this point

FRANK HERSEY: Of course. And I knew before I knew before I asked that it was not such a simple question, but that’s also part of the challenge in in this podcast series, really, all the different elements that go into it and the difficulties in measuring it is partly what appealed to us for for exploring it. So, thank you very much.

Niall McCann setting the whole scene for us just before he left that role of Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity at the UNDP. We just managed to catch him in his final week and will no doubt be trying to speak to his successor at some point too.

We heard there that intermediate goal of registering 350 million people for legal identity by 2025. So we’ve now got something of a two-step goal of a third of the target by 2025 and another 650 or 750 million in the next five years to 2030. That’s roughly the combined population of the US and EU in that five year chunk.

Dr McCann mentioned there, his colleagues in the Bank, the World Bank that is. They are a big player in identity, putting billions of dollars into projects across the world. We’ll be speaking to them later in this series. But to prime us for that, here’s an audio introduction from Faher Elfayez, External Affairs and Communications Project Manager for Identification for Development or ID4D. I’ll let her explain.

FAHER ELFAYEZ: Identification for development or ID4D is the World Bank Group’s cross sectoral initiative to help countries realize the transformational potential of digital ID and civil registration systems by providing global knowledge, technical assistance and financing. ID4D is currently helping around 50 countries to implement ID and civil registration ecosystems from financing in Morocco, Nigeria and Samoa, to technical assistance in the Philippines and Timor-Leste. This includes over 1.5 billion in financing in around 35 countries with potential to support better IDs and civil registration documents for up to 470 million people.

SDG 16.9 is important because identification and civil registration are key to making progress in many other SDG targets such as those related to poverty alleviation women’s economic empowerment, social safety nets and migration.

FRANK HERSEY: More from the World Bank later in the series and we’ll also be hearing more about the civil registry that Faher mentioned the process for recording life events. In Episode 3, we’re exploring an entirely new way of doing it.

One more voice for you in this first episode is on progress. Here’s Cornelius Williams, Director of Child Protection at UNICEF, speaking about SDG 16.9 during a recent ID4Africa live cast. These are really valuable productions covering identity issues and the best way to watch them is to search for the ID4Africa channel on YouTube. There’s a link in our show notes, all being well wherever you’re listening or otherwise on the podcast website Here’s Cornelius Williams.

CORNELIUS WILLIAMS: I think actually to be frank, we have been making progress but we definitely need to improve the trajectory that we were on. Definitely it’s going to mean that in Africa we will not be able to meet the targets for the SDG so we do need a disruptive process but we need a disruptive process that is within a regulatory framework.

FRANK HERSEY: So we’re off course at the moment, at least for Africa without any major changes. We’ll start looking into the disruptors he mentions in episode three with our first discussion on tech solutions.

But before that we’ll be talking about why death registration is as important as birth registration, as well as issues as wide ranging as inertia and infanticide, as we take a full look at the state of legal identity, halfway towards that 2030 goal.