Invisible citizens

By Charo Quesada

Imagine a mother who does not know the number of children in her own family. Something similar occurs in Latin America and the Caribbean, where many governments lack accurate data about the populations they are supposed to serve.

According to the article "The other desaparecidos," millions of Latin Americans and Caribbeans do not have an official identity. These are people who for some reason—typically poverty and the marginalization of their parents—never obtained a birth certificate or an identity card.

Without papers, these individuals are automatically excluded from the social system. They don’t vote and they can’t obtain title to a property, open a bank account or take part in a judicial proceeding. They have limited access to social programs and cannot register their children in the school system: they cannot exercise their fundamental rights. It is very likely that they will remain part of the informal labor market and that their children will also be undocumented.

Although scholars and governments officials are well aware of this problem, the civil registration systems of most of the region’s countries continue to be neglected. In most cases, these institutions are underfunded and hobbled by antiquated and inefficient procedures.

Without accurate statistics about population, governments cannot plan and execute targeted and effective development policies. They are also vulnerable to criticisms about the validity of indicators cited as the basis for official policies and strategies. In some instances, it is impossible to know whether some countries will be able to attain the Millennium Goals set by the United Nations due to the lack of the necessary data to calculate them.

To overcome this tremendous obstacle, important initiatives such as the conditional transfer programs created by some countries to eradicate poverty have been forced to come up with their own parallel system of identification in order to identify and track beneficiaries. But this is an imperfect solution, since the collected data are not part of a unified national registration system, a fact that can lead to duplication, data errors, manipulation and fraud.

The problem is a growing concern for the IDB. New studies documenting the lack of data in some countries of the region were presented at a recent conference held at the Bank’s headquarters (see link to article at right “The other desaparecidos”). The percentage of underregistration of births in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Peru and Nicaragua ranges wildly, from a 8.4 percent in Peru to 25.8 percent in the Dominican Republic, with even more dramatic variations between urban and rural areas.

Specialists suggest some general lines of intervention the Bank could adopt to help governments undertake efficient strategies and good practices regarding registration. Amongst them: offer birth certificates and identity cards free of charge; establish a unified national birth registry; open additional offices in areas with a high incidence of underregistration; delegate some operations to religious or police authorities and civil society; establish units in hospitals and health centers and mobile registration ones; incorporate registry campaigns in vaccination and other medical initiatives; register undocumented children in their schools; and implement regular awareness campaigns amongst officials, institutions and the general public.

Meanwhile, the IDB must vigilantly ensure that the gaps in the national registration systems don’t result in the exclusion of the poorest from its projects supporting the social, economic and political development of the region. According to Gabriela Vega, chief of the Bank’s Gender Equality in Development Unit, virtually every area of the Bank’s activity in the region is potentially affected by the problem.

Individual initiatives and efforts by the IDB will not be effective if governments do not commit themselves, in an integral and permanent way, to guarantee the inclusion of their invisible citizens. Identity is the starting point for a full and participative life, and there are no valid arguments that would relieve governments from their obligation to develop and maintain inclusive civil registries.