Published on Data Blog

Civil registrations and vital statistics: it’s not just important, it’s a matter of life and death

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Photo of a baby's foot being inked and prepared for registration
Photo of a baby's foot being inked and prepared for registration. © Lorena Huerta/Shutterstock

COVID-19 hammered home the importance of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) to anyone who hadn’t already understood the need for comprehensive death registrations. Without quantifying mortality, how can the impact of the pandemic be understood? 

The difference between reported COVID-19 deaths (5.4 million between January 2020 and December 2021) and the estimated number of excess deaths associated with COVID-19 (14.9 million for the same period) gives some indication of the scale of the problem. That death registrations (and registrations of births and other vital events, such as marriages and divorces) are incomplete and deficient is not news: the World Health Organization reported in 2015 that 80% of countries have either poor quality or virtually non-existent registration systems.

While COVID-19 will undoubtedly bring attention to the need for better CRVS, that attention may focus only on health or mortality aspects of CRVS. This article aims to debunk the notion that CRVS is a health system issue only and outline why CRVS is a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society issue.

CRVS is a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society issue

Let’s start with the economy. Goal 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—on revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development—highlights the importance of domestic resource mobilization. The UN and other development agencies encourage governments to formalize their economies to raise taxes to fund public services. But a government cannot formally tax someone who does not formally exist.

The first step to formalizing an economy is to register births. Without birth certificates, people do not exist from an administrative perspective. The unregistered remain outside the formal system—without a legal identity, they cannot be formally employed, or taxed, and may be excluded from health, education, or social services.  Furthermore, in times of crisis, the unregistered will not receive social protection (the aspiration of SDG 1), without official records of their existence.

Strong CRVS systems are one of the pillars required for efficient public service delivery, by avoiding costly duplication across fragmented branches of government that otherwise will all need to establish mechanisms to identify individuals.  CRVS are also key to monitoring and improving government services and many SDG goals—improved child mortality, maternal health and other health services (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), better education (SDG 4), decent work (SDG 8), reduced inequalities (SDG 10), sustainable cities (SDG 11) and justice (SDG 16). Private sector businesses also require insights into population and life event dynamics to understand changes in markets and labor forces to supply goods and customer services. Thus, CRVS are critical to formalizing economies, promoting economic and social development, and achieving Agenda 2030.

Meaningful measurement and projections of demographic population changes are critical. CRVS contribute by providing critical inputs for intercensal population estimates, fertility rates, mortality rates, the natural rates of population change, and life expectancy—all of which are important for planning essential public services and private sector activities. Thus, CRVS are indispensable for the derivation of denominators used to calculate many per capita social, economic, and environmental indicators.

Agenda 2030 cannot be achieved without functioning CRVS systems

CRVS systems play a role in supporting democracy, too. Governments cannot be transparent and accountable when parts of society are invisible to them. Effective electoral registries are not possible without registering births and deaths. There can be no fair elections without universal suffrage. Nor can there be electoral legitimacy unless citizens are sure that everyone has only one vote and that electoral boundaries reflect current population patterns.

Uncertainty regarding populations has implications too for security and policing, especially important in an era where concerns over terrorism prevail. This spills over into broader concerns for human rights. Living undocumented outside formal systems—without a birth certificate or identity papers—has profound implications for life outcomes: citizenship, education, health, marriage, employment, protection, migration, and personal safety and dignity. The undocumented, when forced to flee from war, or caught by shifting borders, famine, or climate change may find themselves stateless. Unable to prove their identity or nationality, they become phantoms in a formal world, vulnerable to exploitation.

CRVS is foundational to democracy and human rights

Birth registration is a fundamental right recognized by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Weak CVRS systems pose innumerable legal challenges. The basic activities of normal life—opening a bank account, getting a driver's license, or accessing social services—are denied. Birth certificates and proof of age is central to preventing child marriage, child labor, recruitment of children into armed forces, and prosecution of minors as adults. The absence of death, marriage, and divorce certification pose challenges to inheritance and the smooth transfer of property. This has a particularly strong gender dimension as ambiguity over vital events impugns the legitimacy of many spousal claims to property and child custody, disproportionally undermining female property, inheritance, and parental rights. According to the World Bank, 45% of women in sub-Saharan Africa do not possess proof of legal identity. 

CRVS are fundamental to national security and human, legal and gender rights, democracy, and economic development. In short, functioning (i.e., digitized, continuous, permanent, compulsory, and universal) CRVS systems are foundational to the UN Legal Identity Agenda. CRVS is the backbone of the "Digital Public Infrastructure" at the heart of legal identity, service access, and social protection. Strengthening CRVS systems have the potential to enable governments, civil societies, and businesses to create more equitable and inclusive futures where no one is left behind.  Future CRVS systems must adopt strong data protection and confidentiality standards, especially as they should be integrated with national legal identity and statistical systems.

This is important for health services, too. During the COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing became an essential tool in controlling the spread of the disease. Large undocumented populations make this emergency work unnecessarily difficult, if not impossible.  Without legal identity, vaccination certification is also impossible, making the eradication of diseases like Polio unnecessarily expensive.

CRVS is central to achieving the UN Legal Identity Agenda

In today’s digital era, seemingly awash with data, it may be tempting to conclude that CRVS systems are no longer required. This is an erroneous conclusion. As argued above, and as the pandemic has graphically illustrated, the need for robust CRVS remains critical to the efficient and equitable delivery of government services. 

Governments examining the cost-benefit of investment in CRVS would do well to remember that vital events ripple out, with consequences for economies, society, health, education, democracy, and national security—events with implications for human rights, gender equality, and the 2030 Agenda. Failure to put in place CRVS systems only squanders economic prosperity by leaving the potential of millions and millions of people unrealized. 

We acknowledge the contributions of Mark Hereward (Chief Data Officer, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund), Rachael Snow (Chief of Population and Development, United Nations Population Fund), Grace Steffan (Senior Statistician and Coordinator of the Human Rights Indicators and Data Unit, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), Tarek Abou Chabake (Chief Statistician, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and Papa Seck (Chief Statistician, UN Women).


Haishan Fu

Chief Statistician of the World Bank and Director of the Development Data Group

Steve MacFeely

Director of Data and Analytics, World Health Organization (WHO)

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