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The lack civil identity documents as an obstacle to the fight against poverty and inequality

It is estimated that approximately 12 million people around the world are stateless. In Kenya, the number is estimated to be around 100,000 people, but this number excludes the large number of people with citizenship rights that are at risk of being stateless because they lack civil identity documents to prove their nationality status.[1] This means that there could be more persons in Kenya, who could be considered stateless than the numbers tell, meaning, a profiling exercise ought to be conducted to get the figures right.

A stateless person is an individual who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law. Whereas the Kenyans in the marginalized Arid and Semi-arid (ASAL) counties such as Tana River and Turkana are considered as Kenyans with citizenship rights, majority of them lack civil identity documents to prove their citizenship. To identify oneself as a Kenyan, a national Identity card (for a person above 18years), a Kenyan passport or a birth certificate for a person below 18years are the civil identity documents that a person must have, as of right to prove their citizenship. Legal identity documents enable a person to claim basic rights and services like registration in government-run social protection programs, health care, school enrollment, the right to vote, employment, to seek justice, open and operate bank accounts, mobile phones registration, and the ability to move freely in and outside the country.

Just like accessing government services, for some services provided by civil society organizations, such as registration as a beneficiary in an emergency humanitarian assistance program, one is required to meet certain minimum qualifications, possession of national identity card (ID) being one of them. Without the ID, it is likely that one will miss out on the much-needed assistance. When responding to floods, drought or other emergencies, humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam have found a way to ensure the most vulnerable can access assistance without an ID. This is by allowing a beneficiary to appoint a proxy of choice who has an ID to be registered in their place. The benefit goes to the primary beneficiary if they have a good relationship with the proxy. However, this arrangement presents challenges when the proxy withholds part or the whole amount. In the recently concluded 3-months drought response funded by European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, the household of a 60year-old woman (Ng’amon Lotukon Ekeruan) from Nanam ward in Turkana West was identified as food insecure through community-based targeting. At her age, she has never possessed an ID and opted to have her daughter registered as the household representative She is one among the several beneficiaries in Turkana and Tana River who received assistance through alternative beneficiaries or proxies.

While most enlightened Kenyans apply for and receive ID upon attaining the age of 18 years, quite a large number of those living in the poorest or most marginalized areas in Kenya transition into adulthood without IDs despite having full citizenship rights. The lack of ID is not only limited to the rural nomadic pastoralists in the remote areas of Turkana and Tana River but is a challenge that even the urban residents of informal settlements such as Korogocho slums grapple with, women being the most affected in both cases. This problem thereby further widens the gender inequality gap in Kenya.

The consequences of not having ID are also unknown to most people until they encounter a situation that forces them to seek registration. If this is the case, then why push the legal identity agenda? Some elites argue that there is no point of pushing the agenda of having civil identity documents for people who are not proactive in claiming their right to civil registration. According to these proponents, neither does having civil documents cause any benefit to this group nor the lack of documents cause any disadvantage since they can continue well enough with their lives without these documents. I disagree with this proposition because every citizen has a right to legal identity irrespective of whether they exercise the rights that flow from possession of legal identity documents or not. Further, this section of Kenyans is already disadvantaged due to poverty and historical marginalisation, they need to be included, have access to their basic rights and not further excluded. It is therefore important to champion for their right to legal identity as a powerful tool for fighting poverty, social exclusion and inequality, problems that they deal with on a daily basis.

In the short term, government and non-government development initiatives, social protection programs and emergency assistance providers ought to be inclusive in their responses to avoid the risk of further discriminating the marginalized poor by tying the assistance to possession of ID. Without providing alternative measures to assist those without IDs, our good intentions to achieve development, equity and equality fail. The ultimate solution to this problem is for all stakeholders (government, civil society organizations, policymakers) to work closely to address the lack of civil identity documents by creating awareness through civic education programs, mass ID registration and issuance to these affected people, replacement of lost IDs and timely correction of registration errors.