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When Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, the world's leading medical journal, calls something “the single most critical development failure over the past 30 years”, you know it’s serious. There has been a lack of progress in civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) in many developing countries and it’s only in the last few years that it’s been given the attention it needs.
The importance of CRVS is increasingly being recognised by the international community, and this will have a considerable impact on countries like Lao PDR, where many don't have birth certificates, and where many deaths occur outside of the health system and are not recorded, nor a cause of death identified.
When we talk about CRVS, we’re talking about the act of recording and documenting the vital events in a person’s life. This includes everything from birth, marriage and divorce to adoption and ultimately death. Having functional, efficient civil registration systems in place is critical for governments to be able to function properly. Civil registration helps governments to understand and respond to the demographics and health of their citizens and therefore deliver the kind of services they need. To ignore civil registration is to ignore the population at large.
But perhaps most importantly, when a person has documentary evidence of their major life events, it means they can access all the services that go hand in hand with being a citizen of that country. In many countries this includes everything from education and healthcare to getting an ID card and a passport. All of these things matter and all too often we forget that civil registration provides documentary evidence of legal identity and family relationships to individuals.
This is the challenge Lao PDR and all developing countries must now face. Strengthening CRVS is a cross cutting necessity for development priorities across many sectors, including health, protection and education – and it’s an issue now recognised at the highest levels and across UN agencies as a joint imperative.
Many countries in Asia and the Pacific are known to have weak CRVS systems. This is why a 2012 High-level Meeting, attended by 230 senior officials, was so important. A strategic plan was written and endorsed to lay the foundations for strengthening CRVS across the region. This plan contains a kind of step-by-step guide for governments on how to improve CRVS and how development partners can support this process.
This past April, delegates from around the world came together in Bangkok for the first Global Summit on CRVS. It was there that the global community shared their ideas and experiences and made a commitment to act immediately and deliver coordinated and sustained support to countries to achieve well-functioning CRVS systems. Progress is being made and this will have a direct impact on the lives of everyone in Lao PDR and beyond.
There is much work to do in Asia, though. Of 48 UN member states, only a quarter have an efficient CRVS system. A number of countries, including Lao PDR, have recently initiated activities that will improve those systems.
Lao PDR, along with Nepal and Pakistan, is one of the “emerging champions” of CRVS, having demonstrated strong political support for the movement. The Government of Lao PDR has established an inter-ministerial committee to oversight CRVS activities, while Nepal and Pakistan have recently provided high-level support for comprehensive assessments.
This week in Vientiane, the Ministry of Home Affairs is hosting a key workshop on CRVS. This is being supported by Plan International, IOM, UNESCAP, UNICEF, UNFPA and WHO. This important meeting will review the work undertaken so far, and begin to plan the development of a CRVS system for Lao PDR.
Mona Girgis is the country director of Plan International in Laos. Plan has been working in Laos since 2007, helping poor children to realise their rights to education, health and a high quality of life.