Why Civil Registration matters in the countdown to the Millennium Development Goals


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With just four years to the target date of 2015, progress on the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been slow. Measuring progress has been hampered by the lack of quality and timely data; this is especially true when measuring progress toward goals that rely on civil registration for their information, such as Goal 4 on reducing child mortality. Available data in the new edition of World Development Indicators show that of the 144 countries for which data are available, more than 100 countries remain off-track to reach the MDG 4 by 2015.  

Why has it been so difficult to make credible progress on the health-related, goals? It is not of course solely because of a lack of data; but knowing what causes death is surely a necessary condition to guide policies, priorities, and programs to reduce them. In high income countries, this information is routinely available from death registration records, which are part of the civil registration systems of countries.  Around half of the world’s population live in countries  where causes of death are only partially recorded and are of limited use , or where deaths are not recorded at all.  Correct reporting of cause of death is particularly difficult in developing countries where many deaths occur at home without medical care or certification.

Civil registration (CR) has a civil role; but it is also an integral part of a good statistical system, along with censuses and surveys and other administrative records. CR provides legal documentation to protect citizenship, property, and other economic, social and human rights. But it also provides regular, frequent, and timely information on the dynamics of population growth, size, and distribution, and a record of births and deaths by age, sex, and cause of death.  These statistics are essential for planning basic social services and infrastructure development, and for understanding and monitoring health issues. Once in place, data from civil registration systems cost less to collect than conducting a census or survey. Also, these data are based on a record of events rather than on an individual’s  recollection of those events.

Despite its impact on development, CR is yet to take roots in developing countries. Implementing good CR systems is not easy; it requires political commitment, a supportive legal framework, mobilization of financial and human resources, and, critically, the trust of its citizens. As a result, many countries have opted to adopt interim approaches to measure and monitor vital events and related socio-demographic information. As dependence on these measures grows, national authorities have fewer incentives to invest in complete CR systems.

Given the importance of CR to measure and monitor development and welfare outcomes, there is an urgency to implement these systems in developing countries. The Statistics Division of the United Nations has recognized this, and is leading work in this area with  its partners. What more can be done?

For a more detailed discussion on civil registration systems and their role in measuring and monitoring development progress, see Chapter 2 of the 2011 World Development Indicators – released on April 14th, and available free in electronic formats.

Visit: http://data.worldbank.org.




Sulekha Patel

Senior Demographer, Development Data Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Lucia Fort
April 20, 2011

Civil registries are key for getting information not only about demographics but also about the availability and quality of public services. The shortcomings of the civil registries in many client countries point to an area that should be addressed by our colleagues working on Public Sector and Governance.

Eva Benita A. Tuzon
May 19, 2011

I personally view that civil registration data [processed/matrix data ] should be made available and/or linked up with all the various government line agencies and other institutions. Making Information Technology works for the entire system [country level: from top to bottom/ tiers of governance] would facilitate improving effectiveness on the area of planning, implementation and M&E as well as impact evaluations. This would prevent duplication or unreliable target calculations and even easy to stop corruption tendencies.

Tracking the MDGs via civil registration information animates what we envision about inclusive development, in the most literal meaning, e.g., for the education system, even up to the headcount of what happens to individual farmers, fisherfolks, landholders, etc.

I agree that the death certificates can provide policy information on health policy directions/development, much more on live births and their capacity development needs.

It is pathetic that until now, many countries in the world have not initiated for a national ID system. In some circumstances, one is asked to show several IDs in one single transaction. It is a crazy thing amidst the potentials of technological innovations. One most evident indicator of poor service is if we see huge number of people falling in line and each has to wait for a whole day business transaction. This is where people are left without any other option. This is a daily phenomenon in the case of the National Statistics Office in the Philippines. I am saying it not to embarrass my beloved country but rather to attract development agencies provide technical assistance as to the improvement of its services and how the country catches up with global competitiveness ranking by promoting IT as a bridge to better public services, i.e., automation may be a critical tool in corruption reduction. Face to face transactions make people vulnerable to the evils of corruption.

Mia Harbitz
January 09, 2012

Weak or missing civil registry (CR) systems generate vicious cycles on two levels. On one hand, a country without a properly established CR system is not going to obtain –as Sulekha Patel correctly argues - comprehensive and timely quality data related to births and causes of deaths. The lack of this kind of data makes it extremely difficult for a country not only to self report on its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) progress, but importantly, undermines the capacity to design good public policies aimed at improving the welfare of its citizens. In other words, the lack of comprehensive CR systems and data has an impact on the effectiveness of the government.

There is a second, and even grimmer, vicious cycle. It occurs when lack of CR systems prevent citizens from exercising their basic rights by rendering them undocumented and thus invisible. Extensive research by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been aimed at shedding light on this particular situation in Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC). We have found that lack of civil registration mainly affects indigenous and rural populations, those living in poverty, and women. Individuals who have not been enrolled in the civil registry are unable to obtain a legal identification document and are at great risk of facing lifelong exclusion from social, political and economic benefits and rights. The lack of civil registration creates an important barrier to access education, health, social and financial services; one such example is conditional cash transfer programs.

The IDB has increasingly focused on supporting the improvement of the CR system in LAC through the strengthening of identity management systems that build on universal civil registration, with a linkage to timely reporting of vital statistics.

In order to improve administrative and institutional capacity we need to focus both on supply of services and demand for services. Improving the reach and presence of CR agencies is also necessary to strengthen the capacity for self-reporting on MDGs. So far more has been done on the demand side, for instance through registration campaigns, with important work still to be done to improve the quality of the CR service on the supply side.

However, we are missing information about the real impact of the lack of civil registration and legal identity because we lack the data to properly analyze and measure it. Variables that are necessary to shed further light on the problem are the legal, institutional and technological facets of CR systems. In order to address these fundamental aspects the IDB has launched a Call for Proposals to develop a database on civil registries in LAC. With this call we expect to get relevant data that will be used to answer –quantitatively speaking– many important questions such as: does the legal framework underpinning civil registries influence their effectiveness? What is the impact of institutional capacity on the quality of service delivery? How does ICT of civil registries affect registration rates? Are there clear incentives for obtaining birth certificates? If so, are these incentives coming from public or private sector initiatives?

For more information about the Call for Proposal please visit www.iadb.org/registry. For more information about the work that the IDB is doing to improve civil registration in LAC please visit http://iadb.libguides.com/registros.