Make Every Life Count - Improving Civil Registration and Vital Statistics

Dr. Heyzer and Mom Luang Panadda Diskul, Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Interior of the Royal Thai Government (Photo Credit: ESCAP/SCAS)

Excellencies,
Distinguished Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to Bangkok and to ESCAP – our United Nations hub for Asia and the Pacific. I am very pleased that so many of you have accepted our invitation to participate in this High-level Meeting on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) – the first event of its kind to be held at this level, and with such wide representation, in our region.

The acclaimed novelist, Ralph Ellison, in the context of the American civil rights movement once wrote: “I am invisible […] simply because people refuse to see me.” This meeting is about acknowledging invisible lives and recognizing those who remain outside the picture painted by official statistics. Our first regional, high-level and multi-stakeholder consultation on CRVS, takes place to build the momentum for a full, intergovernmental commitment in Asia and the Pacific, to Make Every Life Count.

We come together, for this High-level Meeting, on International Human Rights Day – celebrating, since 1950, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is you - our member States - who stand as the primary guardians of these basic human freedoms. But for too many of our people, these rights and freedoms remain abstractions. Until we know, with certainty, how many people live in a country, when they are born, where they live, how large are their households and families, and when and why they die, they remain effectively invisible to decision makers.

The theme for International Human Rights Day this year is, “Inclusion and the right to participate in public life”, and is a timely reminder of the importance and benefits of universal civil registration. Universal and efficient civil registration systems are the cornerstones of effective public policy – and amongst the most fundamental requirements for governments committed to safeguarding the basic human rights to which every person is entitled.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Counting the Costs of Invisible Lives

The Asia-Pacific region has become the engine of growth for the global economy, but this growth has come at a high a cost to our people and our planet – with rising inequalities, growing development gaps and over-stretched ecosystems.

This is why it has become so important for us to balance the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – to ensure shared and sustainable future prosperity. The basic driver and motivation for a policy agenda for inclusiveness and sustainability is that every life counts.

But as we redouble our efforts in the last big push to 2015 on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and as we advance our discussion on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, we need to ask how much we actually know about the progress we have made and the development gaps which still remain. How much do we know about lives of our people?

Accurate and complete vital statistics – derived from civil registration records – are critical to measuring development outcomes and aid effectiveness. Forty two of the sixty MDG targets and indicators rely directly on birth and death statistics, yet it is estimated that between one and two thirds of all children in Asia and the Pacific are not officially registered or counted – with some countries in our region registering and indicating fewer than one in every ten children under the age of five. Similarly, up to three-quarters of all global deaths are estimated to either not be registered or are inaccurately certified.

On the basis of the responses from the 34 member States who have made use of our rapid self-assessment tool, only 11 possess satisfactory CRVS systems – with another third classified as weak or dysfunctional. Fifty per cent of the countries have inadequate equipment and training for civil registration offices to carry out their functions, and 24 per cent report no training at all on death certification to doctors.

It is deeply problematic that in the region most likely to lead the world’s economic and developmental future in the 21st century, there are millions of people who born and die without leaving a single legal or official trace. We cannot allow the measurements we use to track progress to remain so incomplete. It is a weakness that has been described by the Editor of the Lancet medical journal as “the single most critical development failure over the past 30 years.”

Although all people have the right, from birth, to basic freedoms and protections, we access these rights once our births are officially registered and we become citizens. Attending school, receiving healthcare, being insured, voting, owning property, or even opening a bank account – these are functions of legal identity, and dysfunctional civil registration and vital statistics systems mean that the lives of many of our people, especially women, children and vulnerable groups, are not counted, not protected and remain essentially invisible to policymakers. They are stateless and people without papers.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Asia-Pacific Leadership on CRVS

In spite of these significant challenges, many Asia-Pacific countries have already made great strides in strengthening their CRVS systems. Thailand, for instance, has been an innovator in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) for civil registration. As early as 1983, the Royal Thai Government established its electronic civil registration system – issuing 13-digit identity numbers to every registered citizen. Thailand is also in the process of conducting an in-depth assessment of its CRVS system, and many aspects of this are being show-cased in the exhibition outside this meeting room today . Hope you have time to visit.

The Philippines also stands out as a leader in the effective coordination of CRVS information – with decentralized systems and central coordination through the National Statistics Office and Department of Health. This allows uniform standards for forms, coding, data entry and ICT developments to be effectively applied throughout the system. The Government of the Philippines also holds a Civil Registration Month in February each year to raise awareness of the importance of birth and death registration.

In South Asia, the Maldives has been especially successful – with almost complete registration of all births and deaths despite the fact that the people of the Maldives live on almost 200 islands. This has been achieved through the creation of strong incentives for registrations – including access to health facilities and insurance. The Maldives has also taken important steps to improve health information for policy planning – as one of only a few Asian countries to use the ICD-10 for coding causes of deaths.

In short, there is already a wealth of experience, knowledge and innovation in the field of CRVS in Asia and the Pacific. Many of our member States, however, do not yet have the capacity to meet the minimum international standards and this is why concerted national action must be supported and supplemented by a broader regional approach.

Working together, through the intergovernmental platform provided by ESCAP, we can build greater political support, share good practice innovations in our CRVS systems to move the agenda and approach from one of statistics alone, to a broader development perspective. This is why we look forward to the support of this High-level Meeting to move the Make Every Life Count initiative forward, using the proposed Regional Strategic Plan (RSP) for improving our CRVS in Asia and the Pacific as the anchor for our joint efforts.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Regional Strategic Plan for Improving CRVS

The goal of the draft Regional Strategic Plan is, through improved CVRS, to contribute to evidence-based policymaking, more efficient resource allocation, good governance and, especially, the protection and realization of basic human rights for all our people.

The Plan outlines a number of concrete action steps to meet this goal, through eight main outcome areas:

1. Enhanced public awareness of the value of civil registration and vital statistics systems and actions taken to remove barriers to registration at all levels;

2. Sustained political commitment to support the development and improvement of civil registration and vital statistics systems;

3. Sufficient and sustained investments towards improvements in civil registration and vital statistics systems;

4. Improved and strengthened policies, legislation and implementation of regulations for civil registration and vital statistics systems;

5. Improved availability and quality of legal documentation for all;

6. Increased capacity of countries to record, compile, analyse and disseminate complete and reliable statistics on vital events;

7. Mechanisms established for effective coordination among key stakeholders within civil registration and vital statistics systems; and

8. Increased capacity of countries to effectively use vital statistics to realize the rights of their people.

It is a long agenda, but I would urge you to use this meeting to produce an outcome that supports the goals, governing structure and implementation approach encapsulated in this Plan, and which expresses the need for ministerial engagement at our Commission Session to adopt it more formally.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Conclusion

In conclusion, no life should be allowed to remain invisible to policymakers. No person, especially in our region, should fall between the cracks through faulty or incomplete official data.

This was recognized and supported by the leaders of Asia and the Pacific, when our ESCAP Commission, in 2011, endorsed a landmark resolution on the improvement of civil registration and vital statistics.

I would thank the numerous organizations that have provided funding, expertise and other support to make this High-level Meeting possible, especially the WHO, as the co-organizer of the meeting, and the Health Metrics Network, for their generous support.

Well-functioning CRVS systems are critical tools to Make Every Life Count. Good datasets are not just about numbers – they are about good policies, human rights, and changing mind-sets to build a more inclusive and sustainable Asia-Pacific. I wish you every success for this Meeting as you work towards these critical goals.

I thank you.