Innovative Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Systems for Legal Identity Management

Published on 5th November 2019

This is a subject that is of crucial importance to Africa’s economic and social development, and that is at the core to eradicate poverty, and to achieve inclusive and sustainable development and respect human rights.

Africa, which is home to 1.3 billion people, is faced with a critical legal identity gap, whereby many exist without being known to their governments and without any means to prove who they are. According to UNICEF, the births of 2 in 3 infants in Africa south of the Sahara remain unregistered, and 3 out of every 4 lack a birth certificate. It is further projected that if the current trends continue, the number of unregistered children aged below 5 in the region will soar to nearly 115 million by 2030. The World Bank complements these estimates reporting that half of the estimated 1.3 billion people that lack proof of legal identity live in Africa.

To lack a legal identity means that you do not exist at all in the eyes of the state, a scenario that is critically alarming and that contravenes each of our human development efforts. Undocumented persons face critical challenges in exercising basic human rights, in participating in society and seeking protection by the law, a situation that only worsens their vulnerability.

At an aggregate level, universal and complete legal identity records facilitate important governance processes ranging from electoral processes, taxation, pension schemes, social security programmes among others. The lack of these records in many cases prompts the creation of independent and multiple silo databases which are expensive to manage, and that have been linked to immense loss of government revenue.

From a statistical perspective, as Peter Drucker would put it- “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Without knowing the numbers and characteristics of the residents of a country, governments cannot plan neither can they craft adequate policies or monitor progress. This steers us further away from achieving our human development commitments as set out by the Africa agenda 2063 and the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Legal identity is established through the civil registration of a birth, a process in which the government records important biographic information about the occurrence and characteristics of birth and persons experiencing the event. This record is routinely updated with important changes in civil status, such as marriage and divorce, and is retired upon the civil registration of death and by the issuance of a death certificate.

Linked to civil registration is civil identification (also referred to as national identification), a process that is aimed at verifying and authenticating the identities of persons, with the goal to unique identify one individual from another. Unique identification is an aspect that is of increasing importance in today’s society, as populations grow and with increasing internal and cross border migration.

Civil identification involves the collation of biographic information and in many cases spans the collection of biometric information and the issuance of a physical or digital identity token.

Today, we face fundamental challenges in our bid to address the legal identity gap in Africa. One among these challenges, is that of weak and archaic civil registration systems that fail to achieve key principles of completeness, universality and accuracy. Many countries run fragmented paper-based systems, with a huge burden of reporting placed on the public, and with a requirement to travel long distances to access registration services.

This manual nature of civil registration databases in many countries limits their ability to support other important government functions therefore contributing to their under-resourcing and underutilization by governments.

The other challenge, which is of growing concern is the notable increase in investments made by many African governments towards sophisticated civil identification systems that are delinked from civil registration systems.

Robust civil identification databases can only be sustained when linked and updated with timely birth and death data that flows from civil registration. This necessitates that the architecture of civil registration databases be modern, innovative and able to correspond to that applied for civil identification. Moreover, these systems must be supported by appropriate legal and institutional frameworks for their efficient functioning.

We stand at an important time in history whereby the legal identity agenda is preeminently reflected in the 2030 sustainable development agenda, including through a goal of its own, and where there is increasing interest from various fronts to support this agenda. It is pertinent that we make use of this window to make all the relevant progress and in particular to harness the best for our identity management ecosystems systems without leaving either behind.

The United Nations in September 2018 launched Legal Identity Agenda to support member States in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through meeting target 16.9 by 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration. The UN legal identity consists of the lifecycle, “birth-to-death” and holistic approach to civil registration, vital statistics including causes of death and identity management.

The UN agencies, and in Africa the CRVS Core Group coordinated by ECA, will continue to drive a coherent and effective response in supporting member states to achieve the goal of leaving no one behind by addressing the root causes of exclusion. In coordination with UN DOC, ECA working with AUC, other UN agencies and World Bank will continue to support member states with a benchmark goal of reducing the global legal identity gap by over 300 million within four years. Pilot countries have been identified to participate in the implementation of the UN Legal Identity Agenda. The plan is to have all countries in the region to implement the UN Legal Identity agenda by end of 2020.

I therefore urge us to craft strong resolutions that will strengthen the identity management ecosystems of our respective countries, and that will usher us into a new era of human development in Africa, and the Africa we want.

By Vera Songwe

Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.


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