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Reaching the Majority: Promising Steps, Future Actions

Social programs have at worst downplayed the interactions between program requirements and rates of underdocumentation, or at best fashioned awkward solutions to get around these problems (such as inventing a new identification code for each family in each project). However, there are some promising trends in the region as private, public and international entities take steps to reach those who have been invisible to the system.

Programa Puente, an important intervention in the umbrella program, Chile Solidario, is one such government project that has incorporated identity into its program objectives. Identity is a major pillar of the program along with health, education, family dynamics, housing, work and income. Beneficiaries are required to acquire certain registration documents (according to age) as part of the co-responsibilities of program participation. It is critical that these conditions are complemented with services to facilitate compliance. Programa Puente provides personalized support to help families resolve registration problems.

IDB-supported projects are also taking a more proactive role with respect to underregistration. In the case of PAININ, a project aimed at providing comprehensive childcare for young children in Nicaragua through improved health and nutrition, it was estimated that 1/4 of the children lacked birth certificates. A new phase of the project, which is presently under design, will provide legal assistance to families so that children who were not registered on time or otherwise require legal assistance, can receive birth certificates.

The recently approved Plan Familias, a conditional cash transfer program in Argentina, emphasizes removing barriers to enhance the human development potential of beneficiaries, and as such incorporated procedures for the beneficiaries and their families to obtain national identity documents. While identification may not be the primary aim of the programs, the program designs recognize the critical role played by identification in achieving the objectives of productivity and welfare.

There have also been important steps toward diagnosing the extent of the under-registration problem in Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to the DHS surveys, the Multi-cluster Indicator Surveys by UNICEF also include questions on birth registration. Regarding the huge knowledge gap with respect to adults, the Nicaraguan DHS for 2001 included a question on identity cards. Some 17% of persons over 15 reported that they lacked a national ID card. The 2001 Bolivian census also included a question about whether adults were included in the civil registry.

However, the knowledge gap regarding basic information on underdocumentation remains tremendously deep. In 2000, the initiative Everybody Counts (Todos Contamos) was launched with Statistical Institutes in the region with the aim of improving the measurement of race and ethnicity in census collection. This initiative sought the input of civil society as well as survey experts to design improved questions. A similar initiative could be undertaken to better measure the extent of underdocumentation in the region.

What actions are being undertaken to achieve universal coverage of births in the region? Promising initiatives have been launched, often with the help of NGOs, bilateral donor agencies or UNICEF, which have addressed some of the economic, geographic, and cultural barriers to registration. In terms of economic barriers, numerous countries have reduced or eliminated fees for on-time birth registration, including Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru. Mobile registration drives are increasingly common and have brought the registration process to geographically isolated areas. With the aim of reducing social and cultural barriers to birth registration, UNICEF and other organizations have sponsored awareness campaigns which aim to educate families about the benefits of registration.

While late-registration initiatives can be successful there are high returns to registering births and issuing subsequent forms of identification at the prescribed ages. Good policies from the start can minimize the population vulnerable to manipulation in elections, as political campaigns commonly distribute national IDs or voter registrations. The temptation to mischaracterize one's age to qualify for a pension is higher if one is registering for the first time at age 55 than at age 1.

Although often successful in the short-run in localized areas, many of the initiatives have failed to be institutionalized such that the structural problems in the civil registration system are adequately addressed. Lessons learned with initiatives launched after natural disasters or civil wars have not been incorporated into longer-run strategies.

Chile is an important exception. According to the Office of Civil Registry and Identification, 99% of births are registered. Even in the most remote areas of the country such as Tierra del Fuego, families do not have to wait years for a new mobile registration drive to be launched by a new government or NGO. These regions receive regular visits, by civil registry officials in rowboats, or vans that are equipped with computers linked to the national registry through satellites.

Chile has demonstrated that high coverage is feasible by adopting a comprehensive approach to registration, supported by interconnectivity and institutionalization. Ultimately, strengthening civil registry institutions throughout the region is a prerequisite for solving the identity crisis faced by millions of Latin Americans.

This article was featured in the February 2006 issue of the IDEA Newsletter put out by the IDB's Research Department.