Legal Identity in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Lessons from Kibera, Kenya

Published: 1/Oct/2015
Source: Open Society Justice Initiative

By Ben Oppenheim and Brenna Marea Powell

Universal legal identity is an important cross-cutting goal in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and is a key component of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9.1 Legal identity is often described as a right, yet in practice claiming the benefits associated with this right generally requires documentation that demonstrates or provides proof of one’s identity. In many contexts such documentary proof is necessary to access basic social services such as education, health care and social welfare benefits.2 In such cases, access to documentation is likely to be associated with improved development outcomes. As a result, documentation of legal identity will have important implications for the achievement of many of the other SDGs.

An important question for national and international actors working to design, implement, and monitor goal 16.9 is how to most accurately and effectively measure legal identity, and therefore track progress on the implementation of the goal. This report is a practical effort to address this question for a global audience. We draw on recent research conducted in one national context, Kenya. Our analysis suggests that in order to fully monitor progress in providing universal legal identity, supplementary and regionally or country-specific indicators are necessary in addition to a global birth registration indicator. Our goal in this analysis is to contribute to the global conversation around goal 16.9, rather than speak to specific debates surrounding policies, initiatives or legislation in Kenya.

It is important to recognize that the push for a global goal on legal identity carries potential risks as well as benefits. One potential risk is that national governments, in an effort to demonstrate compliance with goal 16.9, may implement more formalized and thus potentially restrictive systems with respect to legal identity. This could, for example, make it more difficult for some individuals or groups to gain access  to legal documentation. Or worse, it could provide the opportunity for some states to limit or restrict the status of certain groups or individuals. Another potential concern is that more formalized registration systems could increase the extent to which states make access to  basic services conditional on citizenship or possession of particular forms of documentation. This could lead to worse development outcomes, especially among vulnerable populations.

Similarly, the effort to construct and implement specific measures tracking legal identity also carries potential risks as well as benefits. It is extremely difficult to construct a measure of legal identity that represents the different legal, political and social realities of over 200 countries in the international system. Thus any single measure to track the implementation of goal 16.9 will inevitably shed light on some challenges and obscure others. As we show in this paper, a measure of birth registration, on its own, would provide a limited and inaccurate picture of who in Kenya has documentary proof of legal identity and who does not. Creating an additional global indicator is not the solution because an appropriate measure for Kenya would not necessarily be appropriate for many other national contexts. Rather, supplementary country-specific indicators are necessary to provide a complete picture.


Themes: Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Birth Registration, ID Documents and Passports, Statelessness
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2015