We can’t plan for what we can’t measure, and without an accurate and up-to-date population count, governments will fall short of delivering what their people need.

At the UN General Assembly in September, member states declared a decade of action to accelerate SDG implementation. Underlying the declaration was a sense of urgency that ran through the entire week. There is no time left for deliberation and half-measures. The world needs action now and we need accurate information to guide these actions.

Why does civil registration matter?

Too many governments still don’t know how many people are born and die in their countries every year. According to the 2019 SDGs Progress Report, the average birth registration globally is just 73 percent, and less than half (46 percent) of all children under five in Sub-Saharan Africa have had their births registered. This is a tragedy for the individuals who go unregistered and whose needs go unmet as a result. It’s also a massive missed opportunity for governments seeking to achieve their development goals.

Civil registration systems, including birth and death registration, provide the foundation of an individual’s legal identity and a pathway for realizing their rights. Vital statistics generated from civil registration provide crucial data for policy, planning, and service delivery. Civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems are essential for measuring progress towards 67 sustainable development indicators, covering 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Civil and identity registers fall into the category of administrative data, which many countries are hoping will quickly deliver more timely and granular population data for SDG monitoring and decision-making. But civil registration and vital statistics suffer from chronic underinvestment. Even as new identity systems are rolled out and digital technology is introduced, many countries have failed to strengthen these foundational systems.

How do civil and identity registers help people?

The poorest and most marginalized in society cannot wait any longer, and governments are increasingly recognizing the need to build comprehensive and holistic systems in which civil registration, vital statistics, and identity management are linked and function effectively. This sense of urgency around CRVS was as palpable in New York at UN General Assembly (UNGA) as it was in Lusaka, Zambia a few weeks later, where African ministers gathered for the Fifth Conference of African Ministers responsible for CRVS (COM5).

At UNGA we partnered with the Centre of Excellence for CRVS Systems and the UN Statistics Division on a side event that highlighted the critical role of CRVS and ID systems to advance action on the SDGs. The event provided a preview of the Compendium of Good Practices in Linking CRVS and Identity Systems, a collaboration between the Centre of Excellence and the Global Partnership, and featured speakers from several of the countries featured in the compendium. Officials from Ecuador, Namibia, the Netherlands, and Zambia shared how their countries rely on civil registers for timely, reliable, and disaggregated data to deliver critical services to their citizens.

The conference in Zambia provided an opportunity to launch the compendium, where Hon. Frans Kapofi, the Namibian Minister of Home Affairs, presented it officially to the assembled African ministers. Namibia has made great strides in linking their CRVS and identity management systems. With strong political commitment, the country has built solid systems using domestic resources, and they are reaping some tangible benefits. For example, nurses use the e-birth notification system to notify the National Population Registration System (NPRS) of the birth in real time, while at the same time authenticating the identity of the child’s mother. This makes birth registration easier, faster, cheaper, and thus more attractive.

The big picture: timely population data for the SDGs

When civil registration improves and is linked to identity management, governments are able to produce more accurate and timely population data. This is becoming ever more critical in our rapidly changing world, where waiting a decade for new census numbers often won’t cut it.  

For this reason, our Data for Now initiative represents a wider push for more timely data to help fill SDG data gaps, particularly as it relates to population data, which underlies so many of the SDGs. New, non-traditional approaches, for example the use of satellite imagery to detect the number of schools per children, or measuring the proportion of civilians with access to quality public transportation systems, are positive innovations, but they are only part of the picture. Without basic context – information about the people affected by the trends we observe – progress on the SDGs will be stunted.

While we look to scale solutions for timely data as part of Data for Now, we’re also taking a systems-wide approach, working with governments to strengthen production and use of administrative data.

Supporting our partners as they strengthen these foundational systems will unlock progress on the path towards achieving the SDGs and ensuring better lives for everyone.