Civil registrations and vital statistics: Here’s why they’re fundamental to society

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Steve MacFeely, Director of Data and Analytics, World Health Organization, Martin Bratschi, Technical Director, CRVS, Vital Strategies

  • The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of civil registrations and vital statistics (CRVS), illustrating the sheer number of undocumented deaths.
  • CRVS is crucial to public health, the economy, public service delivery and human dignity.
  • Without CRVS and documentation covering births, deaths, marriages and a host of other areas, people will not be able to realize their full rights or participate in a democracy.

COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) to anyone who hasn’t already understood the need for death registration.

“Without quantifying mortality, how can we understand the impact of the pandemic?” asks Rachel Snow, Chief of Population and Development at UNFFA.

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 as a country with good mortality reporting systems will yield minor differences between reported and excess mortality.

That death registrations (and registrations of births and other vital events, such as marriages and divorces) are incomplete and deficient is not news; the WHO reported in 2015 that 80% of countries have either poor quality or virtually non-existent civil registration systems.

COVID-19 undoubtedly brings attention to the need for better CRVS but that attention focuses primarily on health or mortality. CRVS, however, is a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society concern – not just a health issue.

CRVS government and societal importance

Goal 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights the importance of domestic resource mobilization. The United Nations and other development agencies encourage governments to formalize their economies, raise taxes and fund public services. But a government cannot formally tax someone who doesn’t officially exist.

The first step to formalizing an economy is registering births; otherwise, people don’t exist administratively. Those unregistered remain outside the formal system, and without a legal identity, they can’t gain formal employment, pay tax and may be excluded from health, education or social services. They also can’t receive social protection (SDG 1). Additionally, meaningful measurement of the economy and many other social and environmental dynamics require a robust population count to derive per capita estimates.

Good CRVS systems also aid public service delivery, avoiding costly duplication across fragmented branches of government that otherwise require multiple mechanisms to identify individuals.

CRVS is also key to monitoring and improving government services and many SDG goals, such as:

  • 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).
  • Justice (SDG 16).

Private sector businesses also require insights into population dynamics to understand markets and labour force changes to supply goods and customer services.

Role of CRVS in the 2030 SDGs agenda

Governments cannot be transparent and accountable when society is partially invisible to them, and effective electoral registries are not possible without recording 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, policing and counter-terrorism. Grace Steffan, Senior Statistician at OHCHR comments, “This has consequences 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, forced to flee from war, shifting borders, famine or climate change may find themselves stateless.

“If you are not able to prove your identity or nationality you become invisible – a ghost,” notes Tarek Abou Chabake, Chief Statistician with UNHCR.

“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,” states Mark Hereward, Chief Data Officer of UNICEF. Birth certificates and proof of age can prevent child marriage, child labour, recruitment of children into the armed forces and prosecution of minors as adults.

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 without these documents. Furthermore, the absence of death, marriage and divorce certification hinders inheritance and the transfer of property, especially important for gender equality.

“Uncertainty over vital events impugn the legitimacy of spousal claims to property and child custody, disproportionally undermining female property, inheritance and parental rights,” says Papa Seck, Chief Statistician of UN Women. According to the World Bank, 45% of women in sub-Saharan Africa do not possess proof of legal identity.

The UN Legal Identity Agenda

Functioning (i.e. digitized, continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal) CRVS systems are foundational to the UN Legal Identity Agenda. According to Haishan Fu, Director of Development Data at the World Bank Group, CRVS is “Digital Public Infrastructure at the heart of legal identity, service access and social protection.”

Strengthening CRVS systems can enable governments, civil societies and businesses to create more equitable and inclusive futures where no one is left behind. There is a benefit in adopting strong data protection and confidentiality standards for future CRVS standards, especially as they should be integrated with national legal identity systems. Misha Belkindas, President of the International Association of Official Statistics, also emphasises the utility of extending this integration to statistical systems.

In today’s digital era, seemingly awash with data, it may be tempting to conclude that CRVS systems are no longer needed but this would be in error. The pandemic has graphically illustrated the need for robust CRVS, which is critical to the efficient and equitable delivery of government services.

Denis Lievesley, former president of the Royal Statistical Society, the International Statistical Institute and the International Association for Official Statistics, has said that “Governments examining the cost-benefit for 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.”

Therefore, failure to put in place CRVS systems only squanders economic prosperity by leaving the unrealized potential of millions and millions of people.

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