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The case for an integrated digital CRVS system for African countries

Stakeholders discuss initiative in ID4Africa Livecast
The case for an integrated digital CRVS system for African countries

Speakers during the ID4Africa Livecast on June 21, which was dedicated to summarising key points from some workshops during the movement’s 2023 Augmented general meeting in Nairobi, have made a strong case for African countries to have an integrated and harmonized digital Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) system that will accelerate birth registration on the continent.

The virtual event segment made a synopsis of key highlights from discussions at an in-person exchange during one of the workshops during the AGM in Nairobi which focused on exploring ways of developing the African e-CRVS Shared Asset (ACSA).

Participants included officials from development partners UNICEF and UNECA, four African governments who shared their country experiences and perspectives, and a representative from OpenCRVS, a standards-based open-source solution for civil registration.

The contributions generally recognized the slow nature of birth registration efforts on the continent and the possibility of African countries having a uniform and standardized approach to birth registration digitization through the creation of an integrated CRVS system through which countries will benefit from each other’s experience.

Thoughts on CRVS shared asset design, implementation

The exchanges were aimed at providing more clarity in terms of business processes and implementation modalities of the shared asset.

One of the UNICEF officials, Fui Meng Liew, said one issue which came out strong during the in-person discussions on the subject was the challenges in birth registration digitization in Africa, especially from the data fragmentation perspective where some governments keep many databases and such data is not easily shared with each other when it comes to birth registration.

To change this, she said she believes there is need for certain archaic processes and policies to be updated, including the need for legislation on data privacy and protection.

“Our aim was to see how the notion of an African e-CRVS shared asset can be teased out. We shared some of our ideas and experiences about the need to have core design principles, whether it is for design for scale to make sure that systems are interoperable, adopting open standards for data sharing, protecting privacy and securing the users, and making sure that there is inclusion in the e-CRVS system. Without users coming along, the asset would not be successful if we have to start this journey,” said Liew.

Liew’s colleague at UNICEF, Bhaskar Mishra, said the idea of developing a digital CRVS shared asset has been well-received by African counties.

“The concept was well received. You know that the idea of developing a shared asset is not new. It is part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 which talks about where Africa wants to be by that year. It is in line with some of the aspirations and recommendations of the conference of ministers of Africa in charge of civil registration,” said Mishra.

He added that the African Union, UNECA, and UN Legal Identity have each called for a uniform and standard approach to digitization of CRVS systems and have also emphasised the need for South-South cooperation, which favours learning from one another.

Mishra also corroborated Liew on the need to pay attention to core design principles in making the shared asset project work. Core design principles, technological and non-technological solutions and a digital CRVS solution or ‘stack’ are the crux of the shared asset, he said, adding that it is also important to “follow a consortium approach, to take advantage of the features of open source, proprietary and home-grown solutions and offer it to countries for free.”

Another important issue, according to Mishra, is to establish an advisory body that will provide technical and oversight support to the shared asset implementation process.

Edward Duffus of OpenCRVS explained the import of a digital CRVS system as a digital public infrastructure. “A digital civil registration system is a critical part of digital public infrastructure. It is an enabler of the foundational identity ecosystem,” he noted.

He said the huge interest notwithstanding, there are a lot of issues to figure out. “The essence of creating a common asset also requires a degree of harmonization. We know that a lot of countries have their own specific laws, processes, and systems. Thus, this will need a significant amount of will power and vision across Africa to get this moving.”

He mentioned reusable standards, best practices, technology components and the need to deal with data fragmentation by ensuring the protection of personal data in a highly secure way, and making a shared asset system implementation and maintenance easy.

Chiming in to the discussion, a former UNICEF director of child protection, Cornelius Williams, said to successfully build such an asset, sufficient financial resources and technical skills are needed and countries must step up and show leadership and agility by parting ways with some of their bureaucratic policies which have given rise to structural failures.

A UNECA official, William Muhwava, reiterated the position of African Ministers in charge of civil registration during a meeting in Mauritania where they recommended the putting in place of a common ICT system, with the highest standard of data protection and confidentiality, that will promote interoperability among civil registration, health, and identity management systems to meet the needs of all African countries.

He remarked that a study carried out by UNECA revealed that national ID systems in some countries are stronger than civil registration systems which is something to worry about given that ID systems cannot work properly without strong foundations.

The official also raised the question of who will coordinate the shared asset implementation drive. “If we are going into a common asset, then that’s one thing we have to look at. Who is going to coordinate? Who is going to provide the leadership?” he questioned rhetorically.

In any case, he stated that African counties looking forward to such a system have to think about how to build the right standards and set a platform of strong leadership and collaboration.

African countries welcome initiative

Representatives from ID and civil registration authorities of the four African countries, namely Rosemary Kisembo from Uganda; Togbe Agbagla from Togo; Tulimeke Munyika from Namibia and Djenabou Camara from Guinea, each took the floor to share their country experiences, expectations and perspectives on the proposed digital CRVS shared asset for Africa.

All four were unanimous that the digital CRVS shared asset is a welcome idea that will help streamline civil registration on the continent, although they made divergent proposals on how they think the ACSA system can get running.

“Yes, we need this shared digital CRVS system. There are 54 countries in Africa. There are things that we share without doubt. We also need to identity what our common goal is with such a system,” said Kisembo as she shared her take on some of the things that can easily be agreed upon by African governments when it comes to designing such an integrated system.

Agbagla from Togo talked about the need to develop a common toolkit that would act as a guide, while Munyika from Namibia emphasized the need for countries to create a stage where nations which are far ahead in their CRVS pursuits can share their experiences with the others and carry them along.

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