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Bringing the mountain to Mohammed

Paraphrasing an age-old adage, if you can't get the people to the bureaucracy, then bring the bureaucracy to the people. That's exactly what the Brazilian government did when it sent three boats out to sail the maze of waterways that are the only means of reaching about a million and half people who live in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. These floating government offices offer one stop shopping for more than 50 services that would otherwise be, very literally, beyond the reach of most of these Brazilians.

Larry Rohter of The New York Times describes the myriad of services available on one particular boat, the Zona Franca Verde or Green Free Trade Zone. The range of services is as vast as the territory the boat covers, including medical and dental care, civil service weddings, birth registration, military inscription and voter registration. Most of the people who board these ships have essentially been phantom citizens who lacked even the most basic identity documents. This has left them on the margin of Brazilian society, unable to even own property without proper identification.

One river dweller, Jhonnes Tereira da Silva, summed up his plight, and that of so many others, very aptly: “A man without documents is nothing, a nobody. He's no more than a beast in the jungle.”

The Prompt Itinerant Assistance program, referred to by its Portuguese acronym PAI, aims to change that. Now three years old, PAI offers these forgotten Brazilians a chance to stand up and be counted, and in doing so opens up for them a world of rights, benefits and opportunities. This is the kind of innovative program that other countries in the region would do well to study as they seek solutions to the same problem of underserved, undocumented citizens.

According to the official website of the State of Amazonas, from 2003 to 2005, the PAI program has issued identification papers and various documents to about 157,000 people, provided medical care to 168,000 and close to 28,500 people received various social services.

While PAI represents an innovative state attempt to breach the gap in civil registration in the remote stretches of Brazil, the problem of underegistration is not circumscribed to these out-of-the-way villages alone, but rather is pervasive throughout Latin America, in both urban and rural areas.

Considering the significant ramifications of indocumentation, both in terms of general citizens’ rights and the affects on the effective implementation of targeted social programs, what is the role of the IDB in strengthening civil registration across the region?

According to Christian Gomez Fabling, Deputy Manager of the IDB’s Regional Operations 3 Department, at the recent IDB seminar, “Right from the Start: Registration, Identity and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean”, supporting state agencies responsible for registration, specifically the technological and legal modernization of registry systems, as well as facilitating cooperation across agencies, is paramount.

He further recommended that the Bank try to integrate the theme of civil registry into its projects, particularly taking advantage of those in rural areas to promote registration. Additionally, Fabling added, attempts to strengthen civil registration at the institutional level should also be accompanied by information efforts to publicly disseminate the benefits of being registered and create a greater social consciousness surrounding documentation.



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