Malawi’s foundational legal identity system sets the stage for a more efficient and responsible digital future

The speed, cost effectiveness, and success with which Malawi developed its state-of-the-art national ID system, which links to the core civil registration system, can be a model for policymakers and development practitioners in other countries.

May 20, 2022
Malawi’s foundational legal identity system sets the stage for a more efficient and responsible digital future
Photo: © UNDP Malawi

Until 2017, only a small percentage of the Malawian population had access to any form of legal identity*, mainly because registering vital events and obtaining credentials was perceived as a cost heavy and cumbersome process for many. With 80 pecent of people living in rural areas and not having access to a legal identity, the Government has faced challenges in providing critical public services, ensuring eligibility, and minimizing fraud, says Filippo Caruso, Legal Specialist at UNDP’s Malawi Country Office. Pension fraud for instance was endemic, with numerous cases of a single individual claiming multiple pensions, as well as ‘ghost’ workers–physically non-existent employees only found on the payroll–claiming government paychecks.

To enable citizens to prove their identity and benefit from their rights, the Government of Malawi set out to register over nine million nationals in May 2017. UNDP supported this effort in partnership with UK Aid, Irish Aid, USAID, the European Union, and the Government of Norway. By November 2017, 100 percent of those nine million citizens had received a legal identity in the form of a national ID or passport. According to a nation-wide census conducted in 2018, almost 97 percent of adults living in rural areas had a legal identity.  

To undertake this ambitious project in such a short timeframe, the project leaders had to think big–and innovatively! UNDP hired 4,200 recent college graduates as registration officers and brought them to Malawi’s capital Lilongwe for a one-week training. The investment paid off: in only 180 days, the staff succeeded in registering the biometric data of over nine million Malawians.  

The establishment of Malawi’s national ID system has had a huge impact: the Malawian Government has retained US$20 million in annual payments that were previously made to ‘ghost’ beneficiaries. Further, the system set the stage for a host of other services to help Malawians live, work, and pay their bills more efficiently. “Now, there’s one identity for one person,” says Moses Chiwoni, the Deputy Director for Malawi’s National Registration Bureau. “The national ID drive changed the landscape of service provision in Malawi.”

“Now, there’s one identity for one person"
Photo: © UNDP Malawi

The national ID system serves as a key source of population data for the Government. Linked with the core civil registration system, this new legal identity system enables interoperability with other functional registries such as voter registration, passport application etc. The Malawi Revenue Authority has used the database to develop a more realistic picture of the country’s taxable population. The comprehensive population registry also benefitted the private sector. Highlighting how having access to a national ID can accelerate financial inclusion and private sector innovation. In Malawi, banks are using the national ID registry to support electronic-KYC (Know Your Customer) efforts to verify the identities of new and existing customers.

UNDP has been an integral partner “from inception, proof of concept, implementation, and continued financial and technical support” for Malawi’s national ID system, says Chiwoni. “UNDP’s expertise has enabled us to implement the project and recruit logistical and technical staff.”

One next step for the digital foundation established by the ID database, says Filippo Caruso, is to further enhance interoperability with the civil registration system and utilize the national ID system for other key public infrastructure such as handling case management in the justice system. The aim is to support four million of Malawi’s rural farmers who are amongst the country’s most vulnerable. The $25 million for the programme, which will provide subsidies to farmers, became available due to money the government was able to reallocate through the implementation of the legal identity system, according to Caruso. “Joint efforts by the Malawian Government, development partners, and UNDP contributed towards the creation of a foundational system. The Government can now build on it and bring this national asset to a new level,” he explains.


Note: In the case of this article, legal identity is defined as the basic characteristics of an individual's identity. e.g. name, sex, place and date of birth conferred through registration and the issuance of a certificate by an authorized civil registration authority following the occurrence of birth. In the absence of birth registration, legal identity may be conferred by a legally-recognized identification authority).