Civil registration and vital statistics in conflict and emergencies – Will the momentum be used to address the right challenges?

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      In fragile regions affected by conflict, civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) is increasingly being seen as an essential tool for statebuilding and good governance. But to make it work, decision-makers need to tackle some tough challenges - both political and technical.

      How can Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) contribute to good governance? How does the compiling, processing, analysing and dissemination of this data, in statistical form, help achieve this objective? At the Third Conference of African Ministers responsible for Civil Registration, held in Yamoussoukro, Cote D’Ivoire, this question was the main topic of discussion.

      CRVS is a relatively new topic in policy debates, yet its benefits have quickly become clear and increasingly understood.

      Civil registration - the recording of vital events such as births, deaths, and marriages - is crucial for governments. It can provide vital statistics on things like births and causes of death, which allow governments to make better informed decisions and provide more targeted public services. For citizens, civil registration gives legal recognition of their identity and social, economic, political and human rights - including the right to vote. CRVS can strengthen the relationship between governments and citizens, helping enhance state legitimacy.

      Gaining global momentum

      The conference in Yamoussoukro is part of a growing global momentum. In 2013, a Global Summit on CRVS helped to unify international efforts towards better CRVS and get a common understanding of the issues. The World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently launched a Global CRVS Scaling Up Investment Plan for 2015-2024, setting the ambitious goal of universal civil registration by 2030. A sub-goal on the universal provision of a legal identity and registration of birth is also included in the proposals for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

      Across the world there has been political commitment to CRVS. In November 2014, the Asia Pacific region endorsed the goal of universal civil registration and documentation by 2024, supported by a regional action framework. In Africa, ministers agreed on an Africa Programme of Accelerated Improvement in CRVS, accompanied by a regional medium-term plan for 2010-2015.

      It is significant that this year’s CRVS conference in Africa is, for the first time, held under the auspices of the AU Commission, and shows more African ownership of the issue. CRVS is now seen as a tool for further African integration and good governance, a key objective of the African Union.

      Politics matters

      The growing interest in CRVS is part and parcel of a wider call for a ‘data revolution’, premised on the idea that more and better data will achieve better policies and increased transparency. Yet, this will not happen if existing political economy constraints are not addressed.

      To date, many CRVS initiatives have been weakly integrated into government systems. It is now recognised that coordination, capacity development and country ownership must be central to CRVS. A functioning CRVS system requires high levels of coordination and data sharing between civil registration authorities (usually the Ministry of the Interior) and those responsible for the collection of vital statistics (national statistics offices, as well as hospitals, local governments etc).

      This is not rocket science, but  strong political incentives are needed to avoid each institution producing data solely for its own purposes.

      CRVS in conflict and emergencies - a blind spot?

      One of the themes of the Yamoussoukro conference is CRVS in situations of conflict and emergencies. In such contexts, setting up or re-establishing vital statistics can unleash critical data to guide resource allocation and priority setting. It can also help avert further crises, for instance by tracking epidemiological trends. Plan International makes the case that birth registration is vital for child protection and facilitating family reunification.

      UNHCR argues that birth registration can avoid statelessness, while UNICEF attests that a lack of registration during crises can create lifelong barriers to social safety nets. CRVS can help restore fractured state-society relationships and foster the integration of marginalised social groups; providing formal identity that safeguards basic rights, including the right to vote and access to services. These can serve as building blocks for support to broader peacebuilding and statebuilding processes.

      Challenges ahead

      What happens when CRVS systems have collapsed? What happens when records and certificates have been lost or destroyed? Re-establishing rigorous CRVS systems requires significant time and resources, and a well functioning public administration. Development cooperation partners on the ground may resume the collection of vital statistics, but this can happen in a piecemeal fashion. In the long term, countries need to rebuild their own institutions and ways of collecting data.

      A particular challenge is in linking civil registration with vital statistics. Not only could state capacities be insufficient, but civil registration requires a degree of trust and collaboration between the state and its population that may be absent. Citizens may be unwilling to share information if they are suspicious about how the data will be used.

      A pragmatic approach is needed that balances both technical and governance concerns. Short term responses that focus on immediate needs, such as the UNHCR initiative on free mobile civil registration for typhoon survivors in the Philippines, need to keep an eye on the long term so that sustainable and resilient systems are developed. That means bringing different groups around the table for coordinated action.

      ECDPM is part of the CAERUS consortium that aims to bring ideas and innovative practices to the table on ways to better link humanitarian relief and post-crisis recovery with resilience and development; particularly the special role that health and education systems can play. In light of this, countries recovering from conflict or natural disaster have an interest in exploring the untapped opportunities of CRVS, as well as their development cooperation partners, like the EU.

      If they are serious about this, decision-makers will need to face up to the technical challenges of CRVS and  the politics of proper implementation for real and meaningful change.

      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM

      Funding for this blog was made available by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement No. 607960 

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