Building a Civil Registration System in Indonesia

[This was part of a presentation during the Indonesian National Conference on Citizens Administration, Jakarta, Indonesia, 22 May 2002.]


I am a statistician by profession and I surmise that the reason why I have been invited to this very important conference is because of my experience with the statistics generated from the civil registration system.  By now, you may have heard and learned how these are generated, compiled, and used to make the quality of lives of the citizens better.  Reliable, timely and internationally consistent statistics on births and deaths (vital statistics) are an essential component of information needed to promote soundly based policy development and resource distribution.[1]

Vital statistics and civil registration, together

Interestingly even as statistics is my profession, civil registration has also become a persuasion and an inclination. 

Early at the helm of the Philippine National Statistics Office (NSO) I found out quite unwillingly that to improve the quality of these statistics which the statisticians produce, they should also be active, in fact proactive, in the development and progress of the civil registration system.  Complete registration of births and deaths is essential for the production of national birth and mortality statistics.  Demographic surveys can be a useful complement to national vital statistics but are not a substitute for a complete vital registration system.[2]

I say unwillingly because then (in 1989) the civil registration system, which was about sixty years old since its formalization by the Americans, or about ninety years old since the recognition of its vital importance by the Filipino revolutionaries, or more than a century old since the establishment of church records by the Spanish friars, was not getting the attention it deserved and was in a general state of neglect. 

Fortunately the NSO which produces the vital statistics gets (theoretically) a copy of whatever documents are prepared in the registration of a vital event at the local government unit.  These documents are sorted and kept in folios for easy reference, and safekeeping, being a primary source of data.

I was born in the Philippines.  Many of you know that it is made up of many islands, some 7,000 of them, like Indonesia, with double that number, and people hop from one island to the other in search of livelihood and lifestyles.  Many therefore have been uprooted from their birthplaces or hometowns. 

From the mid eighties and onward, migration related to work and livelihood extended beyond country boundaries, bringing about the overseas worker phenomenon.  Official documents, especially birth and marriage records, increasingly had to be produced in support of travel and work.  The prospective worker had two choices for securing these documents: from the local civil registrar or the NSO.  For an ambulant person or migrant, chances were high that he would be nowhere near the place where the birth or marriage occurred and was registered.  The national agency, the NSO, which receives copies of the documents from all the local government units, was the more logical and convenient unit to approach.  And so the Department of Foreign Affairs and the various embassies begun to require documents coming from the NSO.  Today more than 10,000 persons go to the NSO and its outlets daily to secure copies of civil registration documents for travel and other purposes, which may have been outlined to you in the earlier presentations. 

And so what the provisions of the law assigned to the NSO has expanded from the generation of vital statistics to also include the issuance of official documents, from where these statistics are compiled.  The process of ensuring the quality of the statistical product begins with ensuring the quality of the registration system in place.  And truly, as a civil registration certificate is a source of statistics, it is also the basis for the enjoyment of rights and services, which explains why civil registration is a major inclination of mine.

Some deterrents to quality output

From the point of view of a statistician, what are the fundamental deterrents to good vital statistics?  In brief, unregistered events, improper registration of events, inadequate filing and storing of documents.  And, consequent to this, what are the deterrents to a good civil registration system? 

By now, we can agree that civil registration is a substantive and fundamental necessity for the sound organization and administration of any country.[3]  Despite this, systems in our part of the world still experience various degrees of neglect, even absence, in some countries.  I would say from experience that it all redounds to the lack of political support from the highest levels of government although the same sources[4] name a number of other causes.  Lack of political support usually translates into limited financial resources, inadequate legislation, weak administrative infrastructure, and general public indifference.  In this regard the citizens of Indonesia are very fortunate to have the commitment of its government at the highest level to establish an efficient registration system as evidenced by the holding of this national conference.

Other related deterrents can be any of the following: lack of awareness on the relevance of civil registration, social and cultural barriers, legal issues, and economic and physical barriers.  Allow me to discuss these briefy.

Lack of awareness on the relevance of civil registration.   

At the family and community level the full advantage and importance of birth and other civil registration certificates are not generally known in many countries.  There is no sufficient proactive information disseminated to them on issues related to registration of these vital events.  For people whose options are limited due to poverty and other disadvantaging processes, enjoyment of rights and services is practically nil.  People only understand the implications of non-registration when they personally experience problems in transactions which require official proof.  Consequently most people only register if necessary to acquire certain services.

You have heard that the statistics compiled from civil registration are a source of statistics needed in the estimation of demographic processes such as fertility, mortality and nuptiality which are used in monitoring population growth and are bases of indicators which are necessary in the formulation of health programs such as vaccination, immunization and child health care; etc.  But this is not common knowledge even within the government bureaucracy.

Social and cultural barriers.

For many of the indigenous people in our countries who have no tradition of written records, it is difficult to integrate registration that is provided by law since this is beyond their basic literacy skills, and thus perceived to be an alien system and not really useful for their own purposes.  There are many examples of cultural beliefs and traditions that you can cite which affect the completeness and timeliness of registration.

Legal issues.

A number of significant legal problems may have arisen in the application and interpretation of the law that needs to be resolved.  The premises present during the drafting of legislation may not hold true anymore with the prevailing situation, especially if the law was promulgated many years ago and needs to be updated.

Economic and physical barriers.

While the civil registry laws state that registration of births is compulsory and oftentimes free, people often find themselves being charged fees or donations in connection with registration of civil events.  Costs involved in traveling from remote areas also discourage the rural poor to register.  Considering the fact that the registration office is normally located in the town capital, many cannot access the service because of geography, time and economic constraints.  Also inaccessibility during the monsoon season as well as peace and order problems limit the mobility of people.

At this point, I will not go into proposing specific ways and means to address these barriers in the context of Indonesia but rather go into the topic assigned to me, that is, developing advocacy and networking in Asia to improve civil registration systems and population data.

Universality required in Civil Registration

It is a fundamental tenet, and at the same time, a dream that civil registration should cover all persons in all countries.  Any person who lives and dies should at least have one certificate of birth and one certificate of death registered in the place or country of occurrence.  To bring this about, players from within each country include: government officials; civil registration and vital statistics staff; medical practitioners; hospitals, clinics, and rural health units; midwives, birth attendants, village leaders; funeral homes; religious and spiritual leaders and ministers; tribal leaders and elders; marriage solemnizing officers; courts; non-governmental organizations; educational institutions; women’s groups; mass media; users of vital statistics; and the general public.  One wonders who still falls outside of this listing.  Yes, it should be the concern of everyone.

And with advances in transportation and communications, significant movements of people will cross borders, and settle temporarily or permanently in lands other than their birthplaces in search of better opportunities.  Fixing a unique identity and status to each person has become a universal concern, especially after 11 September 2001.  Even as civil registration systems will never be alike, there are basic concepts, principles, functions, methods and documentation that should be found in each of them to ensure universality, comparability and coherence in their implementation.  A certified copy of a birth certificate issued in a Southeast Asian country should provide the basic facts of birth of an individual, after translation, to a law enforcement officer in an Eastern European country.

The legal effects arising from the functioning of a country civil registration system can no longer be confined to within its own borders.  There is thus an overriding concern for such system to be developed and implemented in the sphere of universal recognition and participation.  That the framers of legislation for civil registration in Indonesia are gathered in this conference and interacting with representatives of country offices implementing national population and civil registration systems augur well for those involved in this cause.It is also crucial that global bodies like the United Nations (UN), represented here by its Statistics Division and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), are deeply involved and committed in this activity in particular and in civil registration and vital statistics in general.  It is ideal, if not imperative, that the UN Economic and Social Commission in Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) can assume its corresponding presence and coordination here in our region.  In the twelfth session of the Working Group of Statistical Experts in Bangkok last November 2001, this matter was discussed under Other Matters[5].

“The Working Group noted that efficient civil registration systems could produce good vital and health statistics which were usually obtained from surveys; that was relevant in the light of the discussions on the development indicators on health and on the production of statistics from administrative records.  It recognized however that the existing systems in the region generally needed to be developed and improved if the statistics from them were to be utilized.  The Working Group also felt that statistical offices should deal only with the statistical aspects of civil registration, and carefully distance themselves from responsibilities that might be construed as impinging on individual rights to privacy and that hence might affect their relationship with the citizenry.  The Working Group noted that with the demise of the International Institute for Vital Registration and Statistics (IIVRS), there was no easily identifiable forum for the exchange of views on the production of vital and health statistics from civil registration systems.  An enquiry was made as to whether the Committee on Statistics and the Statistics Division were appropriate coordination structures to assume those responsibilities.  It was decided that the Bureau should consider how the Committee might best contribute to that area of statistics.”

Strategic Areas for Networking in Asia   


Assuming that interaction and networking become more facilitated in the near future among countries in the region, I suggest that the following areas be targetted[1] together with some random (perhaps reckless but well-intentioned in a few) thoughts or suggestions.


§         Information, education and communication campaign:  Key messages, strategies and materials for the multimedia campaign for internal and external audience groups can be circulated freely within the region.  General ones can be broadcasted in the whole region and specific ones focused for individual country audiences.


§         Legislative reform agenda:  Countries can compare and exchange notes in how to formulate legislation responsive to minority groups in their own which may be majority groups in others, e.g., Muslims in the Philippines and Muslims in Malaysia, Chinese in Indonesia and Chinese in Singapore, etc., for relevant, responsive and effective registration laws.


§         Capacity-building:  Country training and mobilization programs of local civil registration officers and agents are most important in strengthening capacities and capabilities in carrying out the mission of registration.  Regional or sub-regional meetings mounted by international and bilateral agencies will also help to bring prestige and build and reinforce knowledge, fellowship and bonding among the civil registration community.  Exchange visits or cross-posting of personnel can widen the horizons and insights of registration personnel in the execution of their daily work.  The UN Statistical Institute for Asia and the Pacific, which I am affiliated with, can also collaborate with individual or groups of countries and international agencies in carrying out country or regional courses in civil registration and vital statistics upon request.


§         Monitoring and evaluation:  Initiatives to commit country systems to both reasonable short-term and ambitious medium-term targets can be pursued by the ‘regional coordinator’, whether formally or non-formally instituted.  Performance review systems could assist in monitoring and evaluating the progress of the systems towards better registration rates in the region.


§         Resource mobilization:  While registration of vital events should be free of charge, revenues can be raised whenever copies of the registered documents have to be certified and released to individuals for documentary support to transactions they will enter into with regard to travel, work, education, social services, etc.  Innovative schemes adopted by other countries to generate additional resources, like the issuance of commemorative certificates at special prices, can be adapted to local conditions.  Nevertheless international and bilateral efforts, both technical and financial, should continue to be sourced out to promote, support and encourage the countries to undertake meaningful and sound reforms to develop and improve their systems.


§         Technology options:  The automation possibilities for storage and retrieval of the voluminous documents generated by the civil registration system can also be offered to the private sector under build-transfer-operate schemes with little cost to the government.  Any undertaking of this nature and magnitude can provide the computer backbone to the different administrative systems of a country, like electoral lists, military reserves roster, elderly, etc., at significant economies of scale and facilitate venture financing from private sources.  It may also be possible to swap public domain software among countries that will assist the registrars in their daily work and increase their productivity and worth to their government and the citizenry.


Networking and partnerships do enhance the learning and knowledge building processes arising from the sharing of experiences and best practices that can further improve programs and projects on civil registration in our region.  It will be difficult to succeed in this undertaking alone.  My presence and those of my other colleagues and your partners here in this conference attest that you will not be alone in your quest to serve the people of your country better.

I wish you all success in this great endeavor.  It is not only the statistics in this country that will improve but more importantly the lives of its citizens.  There are no options really left but to succeed.

[1] Final Report.  Meeting of Heads of World Health Organization Collaborating Centers for the Family of International Classifications.  Bethesda, Maryland, USA, 21-27 October 2001, p. 75.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Handbook on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Systems: Developing Information, Education and Communication. Studies in Methods Series F, No. 69. Statistics Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, p. 37

[4] Ibid., pp.34-38; Project Document, Unregistered Children Project. Plan International Philippines, May 2000; 

[5] Report of the Working Group of Statistical Experts on its Twelfth Session. STAT/WGSE.12/Rep. ESCAP, Bangkok, 27-30 November 2001.

[6] This is heavily influenced by my experience with the Unregistered Children Project being conducted in the Philippines with the country office of Plan International. 



Leave a comment

Filed under civil registration

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s