Updated: Aug 28

This blog post is based on research for a forthcoming piece in Coda Story.

What kind of work does a credit score do in the world? And what does it mean to give previously “credit invisible” people a digitally generated financial scorecard?

In countries like Kenya where residents have long been excluded from formal banking, people are now receiving credit scores through the culling of mobile data. This has largely been enabled through the advent of digital credit. Millions of cash-strapped Kenyans have turned to the seductive ease of mobile lending, which was first introduced to the country in 2012. Download an app, fill in some basic personal data, agree to the terms and conditions, and money will appear almost instantaneously in your M-Pesa mobile money wallet.

Companies ranging from multinational telecoms, like Safaricom, to Silicon Valley-based startups, like Tala and Branch, are lining up to offer Kenyans loans at the touch of a button. They have also developed novel ways of assessing people’s credit worthiness.

These algorithms prize various kinds of data: Does this person call their mother? How often do they buy phone credit? Do they make frequent payments with their M-Pesa account? How many followers do they have on Twitter? In a feature on Tala, TechCrunch explains that the company "looks at a customer’s texts and calls logs, merchant transactions, overall app usage and other behavioral data....Based on these pieces of information, its machine learning algorithms evaluate the individual risk and provide instant loans in the range of $10 to $500 to customers."

Proponents argue that such methods enable companies to provide non-collateral loans and offer credit to the "unbanked"--those long excluded from financial services. But talk of financial inclusion tends to silence the background noise: the quiet operations that make these digital apps function.

Mobile technology is not only enabling greater and, in many ways, unprecedented state and corporate surveillance of Kenyan consumer habits in the absence of robust data protection laws. It is also opening people up to the mute calculus of distant algorithms.

Financial inclusion, which rests on the larger fetish for choice and freedom, has opened people up to the depersonalized logic of the algorithm.

Digital lending companies claim to "know" a customer through the use of fine-grained personal details gleaned from their mobile phones. But customers are also made legible to fintech through a set of highly depersonalized and statistical assumptions. One assumption is that the lendee is, in fact, the person they claim to be.

Mandatory SIM card registration laws in force throughout Africa have made it easier for mobile credit providers to digitally identify their customers and appear compliant with Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations. But the reliance on digital and biometric IDs is often highly performative, creating avenues for fraud and mimicry within bureaucracies of verification. The speed and ease of mobile transactions have greatly accelerated the problem of identity theft. In Kenya, it remains relatively easy to register a SIM card in another person's name using a forged or stolen ID. Consequently, many Kenyans have found themselves erroneously listed as defaulters with Credit Reference Bureaus with few avenues of redress available to them.

Credit Reference Bureaus (CRBs) are relatively new to Kenya, but they have become increasingly important in the age of digital credit. While CRBs are allowing the previously "credit invisible" to build financial identities, they are also producing new inequalities and barriers to entry by sorting people into the creditworthy and the delinquent. According to one study, 2.7 million Kenyans are now blacklisted by CRBs — 400,000 for loans under $2. Many don't realize that they have been quietly assessed through automated processes and digital traces.

Such digital operations can quickly move from the depersonalizing to the dehumanizing. This was put into sharp relief at the Tatua Center, one of Kenya's only agencies offering alternative CRB dispute mechanisms (a small, under-funded, ostensibly independent operation doing valuable work for consumers). The Tatua Center is also where one can meet those most negatively impacted by the credit-scoring process. There, I was told the story of a man who wanted to send his ill son abroad for treatment. The father discovered he was ineligible for a bank loan, having been mistakenly listed as a defaulter. Despite pursuing multiple avenues to clear his name, he couldn't acquire a loan in time and his son died. “I had to leave the room for thirty minutes so he could cry,” the registrar recalled.

Efforts to remedy one's credit score are often frustrated due to the"inaccessibility of many of these mobile lenders," the registrar explained. One woman had taken out a loan for emergency services for her son. In the end, her son had died and she knew she'd be unable to repay the loan until after his funeral. "This is someone a lender ought to listen to," the registrar lamented. But many companies have no local offices; their headquarters are in distant locations. Some simply say: "We don't see customers".

These cases of desperate parents seeking treatment for their ill children not only highlight the global inequalities in access to health care and the problems of an unregulated fintech sector. They also reveal how algorithmic scoring systems can distance multinational companies from their customers and from the "externalities" of their business models.

Machine learning is transforming routine aspects of people's lives into commodified data points amenable to statistical analysis. This is at once highly personal (culling phone records, payment histories, social media accounts) and deeply depersonalized (assessing individuals based on often biased assumptions and on probabilities gleaned from large sets of aggregate data). Dispassionate, algorithmic decisions about someone's credit-worthiness can have deeply impactful, sometimes heartbreaking effects on people's lives.

Fintech is allowing a statistical, calculative logic to take hold behind the fetish of consumer choice and freedom. By transforming people into probabilities, digital lending algorithms fail to capture the complex, highly personal, often emotional choices that underly people's financial decisions.

Updated: Jun 12

This presentation was given at the explorative workshop, Rethinking Refuge: Processes of Refuge Seeking in Africa and Beyond, at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin

Names and identifying details of my interlocutors have been changed.

A few months ago, I sat in a café in Nairobi with my friend Hassan (pseudonym). Knowing I was studying ID cards, Hassan recounted the story of his childhood friend, Bashir (pseudonym). Bashir was born to Kenyan Somali parents in Narok, a predominately Maasai area in the south of the country. Their grandmother, as a young divorcee and enterprising business woman from Italian Somaliland, had moved to the area in the late colonial era. She was informally adopted by an elder Maasai woman and had raised her daughter (Bashir’s mother) in Narok. When Bashir was a young child, the family decided to relocate to northern Kenya to their father’s birthplace. This created unanticipated problems for Bashir when he reached 18, the age when one is meant to acquire a Kenyan national ID. In Kenya, IDs are coveted items. Without one, individuals cannot move around freely, gain formal employment, open a bank account, register a SIM card, or access numerous other private and public services. Identity documents not only provide important economic and political protections and entitlements; they also serve as a kind of synecdoche for citizenship.

For Bashir, accessing this routine yet crucial document proved impossible. Registration officers in northern Kenya refused to issue him an ID and instead redirected him to the birthplace listed on his birth certificate. Though Kenyans can technically register anywhere in the country, people are often required to return to their putative homeland or birthplace, a legacy of colonial indirect rule. Officials in Narok, however, refused to register him. The informal kinship ties laid down by his grandmother had long been forgotten. As a Somali and a minority in the region, Bashir’s citizenship status was deemed suspect.

After two years of trying unsuccessfully to get an ID in both his birthplace and hometown, Bashir took a different route. He was easily able to acquire a passport across the border in Somalia, a country that grants citizenship status to anyone deemed to be ethnically Somali. The family then paid an NGO official to smuggle him aboard a humanitarian flight to Europe, where he claimed asylum. Today, he is a Swedish citizen. “Now, when my brother comes to visit Kenya, he does so as a foreigner,” Hassan explained.

This story tells us several important things about the postcolonial documentary state: It shows us how latent, coercive aspects of the colonial state live on in contemporary registration regimes. It reveals how authenticating documentary practices produce a range of effects, including the ability to render someone stateless. It shows how overlapping registration practices produce forms of illegibility and mimesis that can sometimes prove beneficial and opportune for people who fall between national identities. It also shows us that the normative idea of the refugee often fails to capture the lived experiences and predicaments of those who occupy an ambiguous place between citizen and foreigner.

What I want to discuss today, however, is the creativity of corruption; the ways in which Kenyans, many Somali, navigate the dysfunctions of the postcolonial state by illicitly acquiring ID cards and, in so doing, further destabilize the line between citizen and refugee. My insights are based on conversations I’ve had with Kenyan citizens who have acquired refugee status; Somali refugees who have attained Kenyan citizenship; and Kenyan citizens who have faced obstacles attaining documentation because of accusations that they are foreign. These strategies have developed at the nexus of new forms of securitization and new refugee management regimes, which have competing documentary systems based on differing logics about entitlement, rights, and authenticity.

Kenya has long attracted migrants from across the region and globe. Its borders, particularly with Ethiopia and Somalia, have historically been highly porous. Since the early postcolonial era, certain categories of people (including predominately Muslim border communities, like the Somali population) have both rejected and been excluded from dominant notions of Kenyanness. Already deemed suspect, Somalis became subject to greater scrutiny in the wake of the Somali civil war and the ensuing refugee crisis. The 1998 embassy bombings and the start of the War on Terror also increased surveillance of the Muslim body. Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011, which triggered reprisal attacks by al Shabaab, has only heightened this suspicion.

Hence, from the late 1980s onwards, Muslims (and particularly Somalis) have faced a range of legal and illegal hurdles, including vetting, when applying for national IDs and passports. At the same time, the entry of the UNHCR has opened the door for Kenyan citizens to claim the tenuous entitlements associated with refugee status, which, for a lucky few, includes relocation abroad.

Veena Das writes that “once the state institutes forms of governance through technologies of writing, it simultaneously institutes the possibility of forgery, imitation, and the mimetic performances of its power.” These possibilities multiply when differing state and international bodies institute differing forms of civil registration and documentation, each with its own set of rights to residence and mobility.

Hassan later told me him own story of navigating the gaps between different legal systems. Growing up in northern Kenya along the border with Somalia, he lived with cousins who had fled the Somali civil war. When his relatives registered as refugees with the UNHCR, they claimed Hassan as a son. (This was before the US had introduced DNA tests to test the veracity of East African refugee petitions). The family’s application was successful, and Hassan relocated to the US in 2005. After years of living in Baltimore, working as a bus driver and later attending university, Hassan naturalized as a US citizen. As soon as he acquired his US passport, he returned to Mombasa, where he now lives. When he enters the country, he does so on a tourist visa. Every six months, he pays $200 to a contact in the Department of Immigration who, through a broker, has his passport stamped at Jomo Kenyatta International airport and issued with a new visa (simulating a flight out of and back into the country). Though he generally keeps his visa up-to-date, so as to avoid potential police harassment, Hassan has also illegally acquired a Kenyan national ID. “Somehow, no one has found out that I am also registered as a Kenyan,” he remarks.

In Kenya, ID cards cut through the complexities of people’s overlapping, transnational affiliations, offering an expedient means to resolve the fraught question of citizenship while at the same time producing new forms of illegibility, anxiety, mimicry, and mimesis. Kinship ties, access to capital, fluency in multiple languages and cultural registers, as well as sheer luck enabled Hassan to take advantage of the knowledge gaps between different administrative bodies and circumvent border controls by creating two distinct legal identities for himself.

Viewing Bashir and Hassan’s manipulation as acts of criminality obscures the layers of inequality and gatekeeping that structure national and international identity systems.

Yet however creative, such strategies also lose their efficacy over time and require constant updating. In much the same way as mechanical reproduction strips the aura from a work of art, the production of fakes devalues the authentic document. Pervasive corruption has placed many people’s legally acquired documentation into doubt and has made the paying of bribes one of the few guarantees of rights to movement and residency. As Samantha Balakain writes of Somali refugees living in Nairobi: “It was in this space of uncertainty about the authenticity of both national identity and U.N. identity documents that refugees used and talked about money as the only certain and reliable ‘papers.”

In recent years, state official and international bodies have sought out technopolitical solutions to this problem, seeing in computerized databases, interoperability, and biometric technologies the prospects of solving the elusive problem of identity fraud. In 2005, partly in an effort to promote new kinds of mobile lending and fintech, the Kenya government introduced the Integrated Population Registry System (IPRS), which began to consolidate and digitize Kenya’s dispersed civil registration databases. Kenya’s current ruling coalition, which came to power in 2013 in the first election to employ biometric voting, has branded itself a vanguard in digital governance. This year, they introduced a controversial new initiative known as Huduma Namba to capture and consolidate millions of Kenyans’ data into a single digital system. The proliferation and digitization of biometric population registries has also extended into the realm of international humanitarian work and refugee management. In 2007, the UNHCR introduced biometric registration to Kenya’s refugee camps in order to reduce fraud and collect more accurate data on asylum seekers. The UNHCR now shares this database with Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs (now known as the Refugee Affairs Secretariat), which since 2011 has been running a parallel registration system for refugees.

Biometrics has offered the elusive promise of tying legal status directly to the body, closing the distance between the copy of the original and ending the possibility of doubling and mimicry. While its purported efficacy may be in question, the biometric turn has aroused new kinds of anxiety for those at the margins of registration regime. Creative corruption can be nerve-wracking. Hassan feels anxious every time he relinquishes his coveted US passport to create a fake record of exiting country. He now worries that Kenya’s recent push towards biometric and digital registration will soon make it impossible for him to maintain this dual identity.

Indeed, double registering has become more difficult for many Kenyans. A recent report by Al Jazeera recounts the predicaments of Shariff Omar, a young man from the Tana River region of northern Kenya. In 2009, Omar climbed onto a bus to go to Dadaab. His family, facing a severe drought, could no longer afford his school fees. At the refugee camp, he was able to access food aid and free education. At age 18, Omar (now living in Nairobi) went to apply for a Kenyan national ID. He was told he did not qualify for citizenship because his fingerprints were already in the refugee database. Though the Kenyan government has promised amnesty for the tens of thousands of northerners who have registered as refugees, most are still living in limbo, awaiting a resolution to their liminal status.

Digital biometrics may indeed curb certain kinds of fraud, bribery, and forgery, but it is also likely to lead to ever more creative strategies of corruption. As my interlocutors in Kenya attest, registration and identification system will always be shot through with human and historical relationships. Forms of sociality, kinship ties, and banal forms of coercion and exchange between civil servants and civilians continue to shape who can and cannot acquire documentation. This undermines the image of biometric technologies as apolitical, instantaneous, neutral techniques free of human error or intervention. It also reveals how the idea of the “refugee,” rather than an ascriptive category, is a tenuous and fraught condition made, in part, through documentation.