Exclusive: Why 19 Pacific countries are building a single civil registration platform

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Jeff Montgomery, New Zealand’s Registrar-General and GM of Births, Deaths, Marriages, Citizenship and Translations.

Image: Tamaki SonoCC BY 2.0

Globally, nearly half of the 128 million babies born each year go unregistered.

Without accurate data on births, deaths, adoptions, marriages and migrations, it is all the more daunting for governments to design education, healthcare or development policies.

This is why the 19 island countries in the Pacific are working together to build a single civil registration network, so that data on these vital events are accurately captured and shared across their borders.

Sharing data

Jeff Montgomery, New Zealand’s Registrar-General and GM of Births, Deaths, Marriages, Citizenship and Translations, chairs the Pacific Civil Registrars’ Network. He is leading the work towards building a cross-border civil registration network for the 19 countries in the Pacific.

“The key thing is around sharing of data across borders,” says Montgomery. Pacific islanders are “quite mobile”, he explains. Often they are born in one country, but migrate for jobs, healthcare and education, and die in another country. These are currently registered as separate events in the two countries and not linked up, naturally creating inaccurate datasets for government planning, he says.

More accurate numbers on births, deaths, migrations, and populations is vital to national planning. If governments know how many babies are born, they know how many schools to build. Healthcare professionals can also derive valuable information from death statistics in particular areas, and design interventions accordingly, Montgomery says.
“The key thing is around sharing of data across borders.”

Improving access to services

Proper civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems also help citizens in developing countries to access basic public services more easily.

Setting up a bank account, applying for a passport, or enrolling children in school generally requires birth certificates. But many developing countries still do not have proper CRVS systems, and citizens could go their entire lives without a legal identity. “It just makes it more difficult and slower for people to do those things,” Montgomery says.

Furthermore, there is the national security angle to consider. Unregistered deaths mean that “the birth identity remains open and can potentially be used or forged”, he points out.

When complete, the Pacific civil registration network could neaten up loose ends left behind when an islander passes on. “If you die in one country but were born in another, your death will be notified to the birth country and therefore your birth certificate can be closed, your passport can be cancelled, and your health information can be used for planning purposes,” Montgomery explains.

The network is still in its early stages. Montgomery hopes to use cloud-based software for sharing data between governments. This could be advantageous for smaller countries that may not have the resources to support their own online system.

New Zealand now has four data sharing agreements, either in place or in the final stages of drafting - with New South Wales in Australia, and the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue in the Pacific, he adds.

Civil registration around the world

Montgomery is also working closely with the government of Papua New Guinea as part of the Bloomberg Data for Health initiative, which seeks to improve civil registration in countries that need it most. 85% of Papua New Guinea’s population lives in rural areas, he points out, and data sharing remains a challenge for the government.

“They are linking their national ID system very closely with the civil registration system, so that if somebody dies, their national ID card is turned off,” he explains.
“They are linking their national ID system very closely with the civil registration system, so that if somebody dies, their national ID card is turned off.”
In Bangladesh, Montgomery is working to establish a centralised registrar office for births, deaths and marriages. The country previously did not have a single agency for the civil registry, he explains.

Now, data from the provinces go into a shared IT platform, and gets sent to the capital city, Dhaka, and collated by the office of the registrar general. This will help boost data sharing across the government, he says, as it will be linked to the healthcare and education systems. Such data will inform national planning.

Citizens benefit too: “When people register their births, that information is shared across government and they don't need to go through another registration process to access health services, or to access education,” he explains.

Mobile civil registration

Montgomery has previously led New Zealand’s work on predictive services for births and bereavements. These advanced services have been built on knowing when citizens are born, or when they die. These examples underline how civil registration is the foundation for setting up any kind of identity system.

Developing nations are leveraging on mobile technology to ease the process of registering births. Two years ago, Tanzania launched a programme that allowed parents to register their newborns on mobile devices. The data is sent to a central database, and a birth certificate is created free of charge. This is important, considering that 80 percent of Tanzanians do not have birth certificates.

And last year, Pakistan launched a similar mobile programme, an improvement over the previous manual and time-consuming registration process.

Only with accurate data and statistics can governments create impactful policies. But more importantly, every birth and death should matter, no matter where in the world you are.

Emphasis on improving civil registration could ensure that every individual has a legal identity - and access to basic services that are their right.