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Data for development: we need effective civil registration and vital statistics systems

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Sana Naffa

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

In 2015 the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, referring to it as “a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in this agenda include ending poverty and other deprivations, improving health and education, reducing inequality, and spurring economic growth.

But many countries lack the data needed to make the policy decisions to achieve these goals and to measure their effectiveness toward sustainable development. For the most part, they use sample surveys and censuses to produce vital statistics. These methods are expensive and are limited in quality and coverage, especially in relation to statistics on deaths and causes of death: data that is necessary to make health and social-policy decisions.  

Continuous, universal, reliable administrative data from civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems — and other systems such as health information and identity management systems — would be a more efficient data source. In fact when these sectors work together, they can contribute the data required for reporting on 67 of the 230 indicators, and help meet target 16.9 to provide identity for all. More information on CRVS systems and the SDGs is available in this World Bank document.

There is growing evidence that two primary challenges prevent many countries from having effective systems of this kind. The first challenge is low capacity to collect CRVS data. The second is lack of coordination among the key data-producing systems.

Generating better CRVS data

Many countries are aspiring to improve or strengthen their CRVS capacity by piloting new technologies that can increase the number of people who register their vital events, in particular births and death notifications. Other innovative programs aim to improve the quality of civil registration records and annual national vital statistics reports.

This is where Canada steps in to help. The Centre of Excellence for CRVS Systems, supported by Global Affairs Canada and housed at IDRC, contributed to rolling out a face-to-face version of the World Bank’s eLearning course on CRVS systems. Other partners included the African Program for Accelerated Improvement in CRVS and Vital Strategies, a US-based organization. Last year, 28 African countries participated in the two-week course in Namibia and in Senegal, where personnel in civil registration services, health and statistics departments, and legislative bodies developed key knowledge and skills in CRVS.

As a global knowledge hub, the Centre of Excellence documents and disseminates good practices in improving and scaling up CRVS systems to facilitate learning and exchange. With this goal in mind, we organized a session during the Second United Nations World Data Forum in Dubai 2018, highlight many innovative approaches.

In Rwanda, for example, the National Institute of Statistics benefited from the work of local programmers to develop and manage software to digitize vital statistics. In Kyrgyzstan, civil registration paper-based records were digitized into an electronic civil registration system to produce timely and complete vital statistics report.

Participants also shared good practices in collaboration. In Mongolia, the civil registration authority signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Statistics Office and Ministry of Health, to accelerate the digitization and sharing of databases. To address low population coverage in Kenya, civil registration efforts were integrated within the Maternal and Child Health National Strategy and action plan, allowing government departments to integrate civil registration and immunization programs.

This international sharing and learning is key to saving time and resources by focusing on investments that have already been tried and tested.

Improving institutional coordination

Capacity building and sharing good practices by themselves are not enough. This is why the Centre of Excellence also supports measures to strengthen institutional cooperation.

A strong central national coordinating mechanism, built on solid principles of cooperation, is key to successful CRVS systems. It should be constituted of relevant ministries and agencies and have a designated central agency that oversees the development, implementation, and monitoring of CRVS national strategic plans. Political commitment is another crucial ingredient of success that should translate into budget allocations, adequate legislation, and effective governance and accountability.

To foster institutional cooperation, the Centre of Excellence for CRVS Systems supported the African Program for Accelerated Improvement in CRVS and the formation of a new body; the Committee of African Registrar Generals, to strengthen the civil registration function at the regional as well at the country level in Africa.

I am convinced that these types of innovations and investments in training and coordination are crucial to building sustainable and effective CRVS systems. Unless the international community works together in addressing challenges at the country, regional, and global level, we will miss a great opportunity to make every life and every individual count.

Without investing in the people that operate CRVS systems and in the systems themselves, countries will not be able to generate the data needed to monitor progress toward the SDGs. Canada is doing what it can to reverse the historic neglect of these crucial systems.