about the author

Mr. Anir Chowdhury

Policy Advisor of the Access to Information (a2i) Programme at the Prime Minister’s Office, Bangladesh, the National Advisor to the CRVS Steering Committee, and the Coordinator of the UN-ESCAP CRVS Communications Sub-group.

Wednesday 9th December 2015

Anir Chowdhury and Ishtiaque Hussain*

From Statistics to Identity to Rights

“No one should be without a legal identity. No life should be allowed to remain invisible to policymakers. No person should fall between the cracks of incomplete official data.”

This is how Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of UNESCAP, made an impassioned plea to participants at the first Ministerial Conference on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) in Asia and the Pacific in November 2014 to firmly establish identity as a fundamental human right.

Civil Registration and Vital Statistics or CRVS has traditionally grown largely out of national statistics efforts. In statistics, a person is merely part of a demographic. The demographic aspect rules supreme and a person is regarded only as a holder of certain characteristics of interest. Legal identity, rights to information and services are not part of that equation.

However, the modern current concept of CRVS, as evidenced by Dr. Akhtar’s plea, treats each person as a human being and brings in the dimension of legal identity and a rights-based perspective. Civil registration captures the significant moments in people’s lives such as birth, death, cause of death, marriage, divorce and adoption. It provides individuals with the documentary evidence required to secure legal recognition of their identity. Legal identity in turn enables access to essential services, such as health services, education, migration, social services, employment and inheritance, among others. Some activities that civil registration can contribute to include seeking employment, exercising electoral rights, transferring property, opening bank accounts, accessing credit and obtaining other forms of identification such as passports and driving licenses.

Providing robust means of identification (SDG 16.9) to all who now lack legal recognition of their existence will fundamentally support the achievement of at least 10 other SDG targets such as:

  • Social protection, including for the most vulnerable (SDG 1.3)
  • Assistance in dealing with shocks and disasters (SDG 1.5)
  • Access of the poor to economic resources, including property and finance (SDG 1.4)
  • Empowerment of women (SDG 5a and 5b)
  • Ending preventable deaths of newborns (SDG 3.2)
  • Improving energy efficiency and eliminating harmful energy subsidies (SDG 12c)
  • Reducing remittance costs (SDG 10c)
  • Reducing corruption (SDG 16.5) and fighting crime and terrorism (SDG 16a)

A person lacking identity suffers legal, political, social and economic exclusion. The range of these development targets demonstrates the immense practical importance of ensuring legal identity through CRVS.

This makes CRVS a fundamental function of governments. The information gathered by recording these life events can be used by governments to generate vital statistics to identify what services are needed and by whom. Unlike other sources of vital statistics, such as censuses or household surveys, the administrative data provided from civil registration systems permit the production of statistics on population dynamics and health indicators on a continuous basis for the country as a whole. A well functioning CRVS is able to capture pockets of populations – migrant, hard-core poor, etc. – that are left out by many traditional and non-traditional surveys especially if the CRVS is linked to essential service delivery. CRVS can also support disaggregated data required for tracking attainment of the SDGs.

However, because civil registration and vital statistics systems include a number of stakeholders with a wide variety of backgrounds and responsibilities, careful coordination is key to building, maintaining and using the CRVS system. To address these challenges and provide a framework for technical support, systematic implementation and regional cooperation, the Ministerial Conference on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics in Asia and the Pacific:

  1. Adopted a Ministerial Declaration to “Get everyone in the picture” in Asia and the Pacific;
  2. Endorsed a Regional Action Framework (RAF) of goals, national targets and areas of action for accelerating and focusing efforts to improve CRVS systems in Asia and the Pacific by 2024; and
  3. Proclaimed an ‘Asia-Pacific CRVS Decade, 2015 to 2024’.

The outcomes of the Ministerial Conference are also intended to achieve the shared vision for Asia-Pacific that, “by 2024, all people in Asia and the Pacific will benefit from universal and responsive CRVS systems that facilitate the realization of their rights and support good governance, health and development”. Resources on these outcomes and much for useful information on CRVS are available at www.getinthepicture.org.

Whole-of-Government Approach to Promoting CRVS: Lessons from Bangladesh

Guided by the Regional Action Framework (RAF) and recognizing that CRVS is fundamental to a large number of government agencies especially the ones responsible for service delivery, the government of Bangladesh has developed a model for national coordination to develop a comprehensive and universal civil registry. There is already a high degree of political commitment to ‘Get Every One in the Picture’. A CRVS Secretariat has been established in the Cabinet Division which is the secretariat for the entire cabinet and coordinates across all ministries of the government and districts of the country. As part of its whole-of-government approach to improving governance, the quality of services and reducing inefficiencies in their delivery processes, Access to Information (a2i) Programme of the Prime Minister’s Office – with technical support from UNDP and USAID – is providing strategic support to the government’s CRVS Secretariat to embark on a 3-pronged strategy for developing CRVS:

1. Policy alignment with support from the Honorable Prime Minister herself and relevant members of the Cabinet, the necessary laws and policies are being put in place. For instance, the Birth and Death Registration Act of the Local Government Division, the National ID Act of the Election Commission, the Statistics Act of the Statistics and Informatics Division have all been revised, and will be further revised to achieve a responsive and universal civil registry. The National Health Policy and other policies are also being aligned with this.

2. Coordination and partnership through a powerful CRVS Steering Committee chaired by the Cabinet Secretary with over twelve permanent secretaries as members. This committee is ensuring that the most important stakeholders of CRVS are on the same page through a whole-of-government approach and aligning their efforts and systems.

3. Innovation that will be required at many levels to align business processes of the different agencies that will need to work together. In particular, the adoption of technologies and interoperability standards to ensure that data sharing across multiple databases of citizens can happen seamlessly. Bangladesh, in the last six years, has nurtured a considerable asset in the form of establishing over 5,000 Digital Centres at local government institutions. These centres – one within 4 km of every citizen in Bangladesh – represent an effective public-private partnership (PPP) model: the service delivery is done by local entrepreneurs who help citizens access a wide portfolio of public and private services – one of which is civil registration – in exchange for small fees. This PPP strategy ensures that civil registration is part of a sustainable business model without which the government would have to consider subsidizing civil registration perpetually. An additional innovation, which has been identified as a missed opportunity, is to explore how to effectively utilize the 60,000+ strong field-force of health and family planning workers – many of whom are armed with the power of laptops and tablets – in the work of civil registration.

In the 131 years between 1873 and 2004, only 8% of Bangladesh’s population was registered. While in the 11 years between 2004 and 2015, nearly 140 million citizens – out of 160 million – an 87% coverage, was achieved. Average time to register birth went down from over 10 days to below 5 hours, a 98% reduction. The average cost went down by 40% and number of visits to complete a birth registration also went down by 40%.

Although a late entrant in the world of information and communication technologies, Bangladesh has made rapid strides in recent years with a national thrust created by the Digital Bangladesh agenda of the government. Different Ministries have gone ahead and developed large electronic databases of citizens: the Election Commission has developed the National ID system containing 98 million citizens over the age of 18; the Local Government Division has registered 140 million people in a separate electronic database; the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare conducts periodic health census covering nearly 100 million people; and the Bureau of Statistics is on task to develop a household database covering all of Bangladesh’s 160 million citizens. And, these are in addition to the education databases which, at any given time, contain over 30 million children, and agricultural subsidy database which contains over 10 million farmers, to name a few.

However, combining these citizens’ databases will easily generate a database of over 500 million people because currently there is no way to de-duplicate people in the existing databases which suffer from a lack of interoperability. This situation not only points to a huge national wastage but reveals the fact that despite all these large citizens’ databases, there is no way to tell which citizens are being included multiple times and which ones are completely left out because they do not exist in any of the systems. So, some citizens are in the picture multiple times and some are not at all!

Through the work of coordinating national CRVS efforts and aligning multiple identity platforms, Bangladesh has gleaned some important insights:

  1. Supportive policies and laws are critical;
  2. Ease of registration is a must by making sure registration facilities are located nearby to reduce the time, cost and number of visits required by citizens – the Digital Centres are a key part of this strategy;
  3. Linking registration to service delivery is much more effective than any awareness campaign to stimulate behavior change – for example, the Bangladesh government made the submission of birth certificates mandatory for children’s admission into primary schools; and,
  4. Ensuring interoperability across multiple identity platforms is most practically done by designing CRVS creatively with different modules ‘owned’ by different agencies and having a strong but flexible technical coordination that links to all these systems.
Call to Action: Regional Cooperation to Meet the RAF’s December 15 Deadline

Every time I attend a UN-ESCAP-organized CRVS meeting in Bangkok in person, I come away with a sense of awe and wonder about the ambitions of each country, the challenges being faced and the creativity being applied to overcome these challenges. Each approach is unique to a country but is full of lessons that have benefited Bangladesh. However, that kind of interaction usually happens just once a year. But I would like to reach out to many of my colleagues in different countries and throw a question I have or a challenge I am facing hoping to get answers and help. Email alone is often just not enough to facilitate such interaction. Thus, this blog and other upcoming social media avenues are hopefully a humble beginning to a more vibrant and helping community to reach the ambitious CRVS targets we are setting for ourselves. I hope that we will share our questions and answers, hopes and frustrations, achievements and challenges on an ongoing basis with each other.

It is very clear that in order to reach these targets, we need to ensure political commitment, establish good coordination, engage the public, formulate a sustainable enabling environment, and put in place interoperable technical infrastructures, among other things. The National CRVS Focal Points are working hard with a long term commitment. However, a short term sense of urgency is also critical. The call of the hour is to meet the December 15 deadline (under the Regional Action Framework) for each country to submit its CRVS baseline report. With support from UN ESCAP, learning from each other and identifying scope for collaboration, not only can we meet this deadline, we can also establish a learning network to attain the ultimate goal of ensuring every citizens’ right to legal identity and vital services by ‘making everyone count’. When we have ensured that, generating vital statistics, possibly even on a real-time basis, will be a no brainer.

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* Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of the Access to Information (a2i) Programme at the Prime Minister’s Office, Bangladesh. He is also the National Advisor to the CRVS Steering Committee, and the Coordinator of the UN-ESCAP CRVS Communications Sub-group and Ishtiaque Hussain is the Policy Associate of the Access to Information Programme at the Prime Minister’s Office, and a Member of the UN-ESCAP CRVS Communications Sub-group.

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The views expressed here are those of the contributors and do not reflect the views of UN-ESCAP or its partners.

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