The Global Goals offer a historic opportunity to eradicate extreme poverty but unless we achieve these goals in an equitable way, we will be failing the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. The “leave no one behind” agenda is about prioritising the interests of those most excluded and at risk of violence and discrimination, in particular women and children.
In order to achieve this ambition, we need to know who and where the most marginalised people are. We then need to better understand their lives and ensure they are included in progress.
Recording key life events
So how do we know who is getting left behind?
Well, civil registration systems have a key role to play. These systems record the occurrence and characteristics of every life event in a country, including all births and deaths.
Once a birth is registered, the birth certificate is the legal document that establishes an individual’s existence in the eyes of the law. Without it, a child is invisible and may be vulnerable to many forms of abuse and neglect. The civil registration system provides the sole continuous source of population data in a country. Based on this data the National Statistics Office publishes “vital statistics”, hence the term Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS).
Unfortunately, in many countries these systems do not receive the investment and prioritisation they deserve and registration rates are extremely low. According to UNICEF, around 290 million children (or 45% of all children under age 5 worldwide), do not possess a birth certificate.
Census and surveys do of course provide valuable insights about the population at an aggregate level, however these are costly and infrequent and do not provide details from the perspective of the individual.
Who is being left behind?
Let’s take a look at the question of who is getting left behind from a data perspective. Donald Rumsfeld infamously spoke about the “known knowns” and perhaps surprisingly, this is a useful way of looking at this problem.
Firstly, you have the known knowns, people for whom we have data and evidence of them being left behind. They are included in the civil registry and it is possible to work with them and target interventions for them.
around 290 million children (or 45% of all children under age 5 worldwide), do not possess a birth certificate.
Then you have the known unknowns, people who we know exist, but for whom we have little or no data to tell us if they are being left behind. Again, this group of people is typically included in the civil registry and are formally recognised, but they are poorly understood. Further research can be targeted to better understand their situation.
Finally there are the unknown unknowns, people who are not even counted and do not exist in the eyes of the law or the state. This group is not included in the civil registry and we can say little about them. Targeting systematic interventions or further research for such groups is next to impossible.
Without effective CRVS systems, too many people fall into this last category. If children are not registered at birth then they do not formally exist and are at a high risk of being left behind. To avoid this we need to improve the state of civil registration systems around the world, record the birth of every child and make the unknown unknowns a thing of the past.
Plan International is now taking a closer look at birth registration, searching for innovative ways to increase birth registration rates and extend registration to the most marginalised. Please see our recent publication Innovations in Birth Registration, which we produced with the support of Accenture.
We are particularly excited about developing an open-source software solution to provide data-enabled CRVS for low resource settings. Coming very soon, “OpenCRVS” is free, standards-based, fully interoperable with national ID and health systems, and adaptable for different country contexts.
Here’s to a future where we count every child, because every child counts and we must leave no one behind!