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Mobile VRS (developed by UNICEF in partnership with Uganda Registration Services Bureau and Uganda Telecom) improves birth registration at the community level. Photo credit: Michele Sibiloni

I just started working with the Innovations and Child Protection teams at UNICEF looking at how innovative technologies can be used to improve child outcomes. I can share with you that if the health sector is any indicator of what technology can do to reach unreachable children, the potential for its use in child protection is impressive….and exciting. This is not to say, however, that it’s going to be easy identifying and actually getting the appropriate technology integrated into child protection programs….and actually working….successfully. There is a process involved that includes mapping all available innovative technologies, identifying the key gaps in child protection programs, looking at the evidence supporting how technology can improves outcomes, who the users will be and how they need to be trained….etc. I plan to write about all these things in future blog submissions.

Initially, we are going to focus first on how innovations in technology can be used to increase birth registration, a fundamental underpinning for child protection. Having a legal identity that begins with registration at birth is often the starting point for a child to access the support vital to his or her survival, and serves as the window for escaping poverty. Without legal identification, children have no institutional protection and are more vulnerable to exploitation, violence, neglect, early marriages, under-age military conscription, sexual trafficking and slavery. Alarmingly, over ½ of all the world’s children are unregistered. In some areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 70% of births go unregistered.

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Photo credit: Michele Sibiloni

Significant barriers hinder birth registration in developing countries, particularly in rural areas. Whereas delivery in a health facility is the optimal opportunity to register births, most children in Africa are born at home. For example, in Uganda, 57% of children are born outside health facilities. Many parents are unaware of the importance of registering their children’s births. Even when children are born in health facilities, often the burdensome bureaucracy, paperwork and waiting periods required for officially registering births make the process prohibitive to many parents. Culture and traditional practices also impede timely registration of births. In many parts of Africa, superstition prevents parents from acknowledging children before they reach an age well past the danger period where many infants die.

I just returned from a Study Tour in Uganda co-hosted by UNICEF, the EU and the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB). The Study Tour brought together UNICEF staff from across Africa with UNICEF’s implementing and government partners to explore how innovative technology can dramatically increase the registration of child births. The highlight of the event included field trips to observe how one of the key innovations, Mobile VRS (mobile vital records system) uses simple phones owned by most Ugandans, even in rural areas, to register births. Mobile VRS is the product of an innovative partnership among UNICEF, the Government of Uganda and Uganda Telecom.

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Photo credit: Michele Sibiloni

One observation that stood out to all of us visiting the site was the role that the “enabling environment” can play in the success (or failure) of using innovative technology. When we talk about “enabling environment” most people think of laws, policies and infrastructure that can either facilitate….or hinder the use of technology. But “enabling environment” also refers to other things than can play a role in success or failure: things like culture, tradition, and even gender. In Uganda, we observed how the cultural tradition of delaying the naming of a baby plays a huge role in how Mobile VRS is used notwithstanding the increased efficiencies that come with using the system. Delaying the naming of children sometimes leads to delaying the entry of birth information into the Mobile VRS system.

People working in the area of innovative technologies will all tell you that there is one important thing to remember as we go down the road in exploring how innovations in technology can be used to improve outcomes for children who have been hard to reach. Figuring out the technology itself is not the difficult part….figuring out how you use the technology successfully is. I hope to share with you more on this topic in future posts.

Bill Philbrick
Innovation and Child Protection Project Lead
wphilbrick(at)unicef.org

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