News / Africa

African Ministers Tackle 'Scandal of Invisibility'

Government ministers from across Africa are gathering this week to address what is being called "the scandal of invisibility."  Countless millions of Africans are living their lives and dying without leaving a trace.  

The two day meeting is billed as the first Conference of African Ministers Responsible for Civil Registration.  But behind the bland title is a host of disturbing realities.

Most African countries lack an adequate system of registering births and deaths.  Experts say the figures we hear about the numbers of mothers who die in childbirth, the death toll from AIDS and malaria, the numbers of child soldiers and underage brides, for example, are mostly educated guesses.

Dmitri Sanga, acting director of the African Center for Statistics in Addis Ababa, says most African governments have little accurate knowledge of the people they are accountable for.

"It is not only a problem for the individual himself, but also for his family, for the government and so on because if they want to plan to improve the lives of people, they have to know how many we are.  They have to know how many die and of which disease.  So a proper record of birth, death and other vital events is key in improving the system," said Sanga.

The lack of record keeping regularly complicates the work of academics and journalists trying to understand the magnitude of Africa's problems, and the pace of its progress.

Some reports of the recent drought-caused malnutrition crisis in the Horn of Africa compared conditions to the famine of the mid-1980s, when millions of people are believed to have died.  But despite reports from aid workers of widespread starvation during the past three years, the comparison failed.  The lack of records from the two periods made even rough estimates impossible.   

Beejay Kokil, statistics director for the African Development Bank, says many countries on the continent once had comprehensive civil registration systems.  But, he says, they were discontinued because of lack of funding.

"At one time, when there were adjustment programs and all this, the resources devoted to statistics were completely cut.  All the systems died.  Many of these countries had these systems in place back in the [19]70s, early '80s; these systems were working and providing a lot of information," Kokil said.  "But then at one time they cut; all these resources were not available; all these systems died.  And now revamping them is taking some time."

A brochure prepared for this ministerial conference describes current conditions as a "scandal of invisibility" because the absence of reliable evidence of births, deaths and causes of death leaves most of the world's poor "unseen and unaccounted for.

The document says a lack of data also makes it nearly impossible to measure progress toward development goals set by the United Nations a decade ago.

Experts say the road to comprehensive civil registration will be long and expensive.  The aim of this meeting simply is to raise awareness and persuade governments to make a political commitment to improving vital statistics systems.

A child born in many parts of Africa today faces the prospect of living and dying without a trace.

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