Image by Tobin Jones
  • Blog
  • 23 October 2019

Accelerating CRVS and legal identity in Africa: From problems and principles to practice

Following a key conference in Zambia, DI's Bill Anderson and Bernard Sabiti reflect on how CRVS systems in Africa can go from problems to practice.


Bernard Sabiti, Bill Anderson

Between 14–18 October 2019, 750 delegates met in Lusaka, Zambia, for the Fifth Conference of African Ministers Responsible for Civil Registration organised by the Africa Programme on Accelerated Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (APAI-CRVS) – a regional initiative led by the Pan-African institutions. The conference ended with renewed commitments to improve the registration of refugees and to prioritising the integration of CRVS, identity and health information systems.

Most significant, however, was the increased emphasis on the need for digital systems. At the last conference in 2017 the outcome document welcomed “the entry into force of the digitization of civil registration and vital statistics systems”. The draft declaration from Lusaka[1] goes a whole lot further.

It recognised the importance of “digital transformation for the achievement of Agenda 2063 and 2030 Agenda”; noted that digitized CRVS is “a foundation for a Digital ID”; and welcomed the opportunity “for the modernization of the civil registration and vital statistics systems in Africa through technological solutions that aim to build centralized digital civil registries.” Moreover the draft declaration encourages African Union (AU) member states to “strengthen investment in digitization”, and requested that the African Union Commission (AUC) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to “support countries in harmonizing legislations governing civil registration and identity management including interoperability of systems by using appropriate information and communication technology assets.”

Presenters of two digital systems, iCivil (based in Burkina Faso) and OpenCRVS (recently trialled in Zambia), were inundated with searching questions from delegates from countries still exploring their options. Well-designed open source systems – such as OpenCRVS – offer low-tech, easy-to-use, country-specific and multilingual data collection deployments, while at the same time embedding industry-strength security and privacy, as well as standards-based interoperability with pre-existing ID and health systems.

Anticipating improvements in digital systems, the conference document took note of the need for monitoring frameworks to move with the times. It called on AU member states to “strengthen the collaboration between national statistical offices, health and legal identity management”; to “publish vital statistics from the civil registration records frequently”; and to “encourage ECA, in collaboration with AUC, the African Development Bank, the APAI-CRVS Core Group, and other partners to strengthen its online monitoring framework for tracking progress made at national, regional levels regarding civil registration and vital statistics.”

DI provided a background paper to the conference on Measuring the state of civil registration and legal identity in Africa, and together with our partner the Uganda Bureau of Statistics presented our recommendations in the opening plenary. Progress with CRVS and legal ID are, for most African countries, currently monitored by SDG 16.9, through data is collected on a five-yearly basis from household surveys. This is no longer acceptable, particularly in the light of digital development.

The key recommendations from our paper are that:

  • Monitoring data should be drawn directly from registration agencies and their systems.
  • National statistics offices should work with the registration agencies to produce annual statistics tracking progress. The national statistical office, as the natural leader of national statistical systems in most countries, should take the lead in strengthening multi-agency collaboration for CRVS-national identity integration. (This was bolstered by the ECA’s launching of guidelines for ‘Memoranda of Understanding’ between country CRVS-ID agencies.)
  • These statistics should be included in ECA’s monitoring framework.
  • The most important indicators to track are:
    • how many newborns in the preceding year had their birth digitally registered;
    • how many of these received a legal identity number.

Notwithstanding the conference’s innovative theme, a significant amount of time, including many of the sessions on innovation, was spent repeating the challenges of birth registration across Africa, and restating the importance of CRVS and legal identity. Less time was dedicated to the implementation of concrete solutions. The AU, AfDB and ECA, as well as funders and other stakeholders, have the opportunity over the next two years to support truly innovative ideas – such as focusing on building and consolidating digital data capture, national databases, and the connectivity required between the local and national components. These may well become the concrete interventions showcased at the dawn of the next conference in Maputo in 2021.

Photo: AU UN IST PHOTO / Tobin Jones. A center in Mogadishu (set up by the regional administration and with funding from US Aid through the International Organization for Migration) issues biometric identification cards to Somali citizens.


[1] Draft declaration of the Fifth Conference of African Ministers Responsible for Civil Registration, shared after the conference.