Conference Paper

The Global Infrastructure of Biometric Citizenship: Civil Registration in the Aftermath of Empire

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Abstract

In the wake of Said's Orientalism, historians have become accustomed to thinking of imperialism as significantly motivated by the pursuit of knowledge. In this paper, I work from the premise that the opposite was usually the case. The colonial state's curiosity – its will to know and to govern – was systematically curtailed by a racially formed political boundary. In African history parsimony produced a state that historians have called the gatekeeper, an administrative structure that straddled the flow of resources but had little means to know or govern its people or its territory. The post‐colonial state has inherited this architecture. Indeed, in many instances – the Congo is a good example – the surveillance and administrative capacity of the post‐colonial state is dramatically weaker than its predecessor. In the past decade biometric identification and registration systems have proliferated across the African continent (and more widely in the former colonial world) motivated by the promise of new products and new profits in banking and, particularly, by the spread of biometrically delivered cash grants. In contrast with most liberal democracies, it is the absence of existing legal arrangements – or even meaningful public debate – for the protection of privacy that has been one crucial imperative to the spread of biometric registration in the former colonial world. The absence of legitimated forms of literate local government is another. These biometric registration systems support fine-°©‐grained individualised credit histories in place of the sweeping categories – race, caste, tribe – of colonial governance, but they also foster new boundaries between the credit-°©‐worthy and the delinquent, between the formally and the informally employed, and between the employable and the workless.

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