Representational image. Photo: iStock
Representational image. Photo: iStock

An estimated two billion people, or roughly 40% of the world’s population, are invisible: no formal proof of their existence, such as a birth certificate, is maintained in the country where they live and they will likely die without an official record as well.

Many nations have systems that work well and almost go unnoticed by beneficiaries. In many low- and middle-income countries, however, Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems face challenges of both supply and demand for services and, frequently, severe resource constraints. With Asia’s booming population, the problems this generates are becoming more acute by the year. Poorly functioning CRVS systems not only leave governments starved of accurate statistics on population growth and mortality, but everyday people lose out on the social benefits that can improve their lives.

Those without a birth certificate often can’t attend school, can’t attain a passport for international travel, can’t become registered to vote or sign up for basic social benefits

When people have no official proof of birth or identity, many entitlements that a large part of the world takes for granted are off limits. For example, those without a birth certificate often can’t attend school, can’t attain a passport for international travel, can’t become registered to vote or sign up for basic social benefits.

Similarly, if the families of a deceased individual have no official death certificate or burial permit, burial arrangements may be illegal, and questions in relation to inheritance and estate issues may arise. Furthermore, the country is denied critical information about the important causes of death in the population.

To better understand and solve this problem, an international effort to empower CRVS systems to count every person has been launched in 19 countries around the world. This Data for Health Initiative (funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Australian Government) provides technical assistance to governments to improve CRVS systems. Upgraded systems will provide new data to help inform governments, civil society, and policymakers on what makes people sick or die – which can guide governments on critical decisions concerning resource allocation and public policy priorities.

To chronicle the stories of the human impact of these technical efforts, Vital Strategies has launched a new campaign called #WeCount. #WeCount uses social media such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to give brief testimonials of individuals who are moving from invisible to visible. Each of the persons highlighted offers a unique point of view on why being counted has such a real impact on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. From telling the story of a mother of three in Myanmar who needed birth certificates so her children can get vaccinated, to the trials of a man in Ghana who, if not for receiving an official death record, would have been responsible for an outstanding loan for his deceased relative, #WeCount is showcasing the diverse ways CRVS efforts help ordinary people in remote communities.

The Data for Health Initiative is touching the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Asia. In Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Sri Lanka, governments are working to make the invisible visible. #WeCount tells their stories, stories you can engage with through following the #WeCount hashtag on social media.

Philip Setel

Dr Setel is a health and demographic anthropologist with over 20 years experience in health development in low- and middle-income countries. Dr Setel headed monitoring and evaluation in global health at the Bill & Medlinda Gates Foundation and has served as a consultant for organizations such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria; UNICEF; and WHO.