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A Dominican student gets a birth certificate (left) so he can truly advance in his country's school system (right).   (Photos: Luis Emilio Gonzalez/UNICEF and Dewins18)
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Education:  The Birth Certificate Factor

A lack of birth certificate, a serious problem in Latin America, impedes educational advancement for students in the region.



Low educational attainment is usually associated with a number of other negative social indicators. These include poor cognitive skills, weak early childhood development, students that leave school to enter the job market, and a lack of infrastructure and of qualified teachers. As a result of the combination of all of these factors, drop out rates remain troublingly high in Latin America. Now, however, a provocative new research paper by the Inter American Development Bank (IADB) economists Ana Corbacho, Steve Brito and Rene Osorio Rivas, has shed new light on this topic. Their conclusions about the importance of birth registration should be taken into account by any policymaker interested in designing public policies to improve student retention rates.


The authors conclude that “the absence of birth registration becomes a critical obstacle to graduate from primary school and translates into fewer years of overall educational attainment”. This lack of registration doesn't only impact education, but also the effectiveness of a range of other important government-led social programs that target these at-risk populations. Thus the problem extends beyond education to the realms of health, nutrition, conditional cash transfers, and other programs.


Across Latin America, the number of children without birth certificates continues to be extremely high, with UNICEF estimating that some ten percent of all children under five years old lack any legal documentation of their birth. This impacts primary school enrollment, but to an even greater extent it handicaps students' ability to move on to the secondary level. While schools may accept students without documentation, awarding them a diploma becomes much more complicated when they lack any legal verification of their identity. Thus, the authors argue that "birth certificates are not required to enter school or to enroll but are needed to issue a school diploma.”


The authors note that several studies before proved the “negative correlation between the lack of a birth certificate and schooling,” such as Bracamonte and Ordonez in 2006, and Harbitz and Tamargo in 2009. The reasons for this are many, including distance from a certifying government agency, a lack of knowledge on the part of parents, cultural resistance to the state – in particular among indigenous populations – and transportation costs. But the biggest factor may be the mother's lack of a legal identity, since it is a prerequisite in most countries to register a child’s birth.


There is also a close relationship between a lack of registration and a child's health. Vaccination clinics often require parents to present proof of a child's legal identity, as do government food support programs. Improving the ability of families to attain legal registration for their children can thus provide an important boost to the overall welfare of students, which has been shown to directly impact their educational attainment.


These conclusions bring together a better understanding of the many factors involved in combating high dropout rates and achieving better overall student achievement in Latin America. While it is also important to continue advocating for the range of additional policies that address student retention rates – such as increased parent participation in schooling, improvements in the quality of teachers, and robust scholarship programs – it is critical to begin focusing on birth registration as a policy priority.


Increasing birth registration is something of a new challenge, but it may prove to be relatively achievable in terms of applied solutions. For instance, one solution with a lot of potential, which is suggested by the study's authors, is using the school facility itself to provide birth certificates for its students. It will also be key to spread information about the problem, as parents' decisions are too often driven by a lack of knowledge or cultural factors. Thus, an energetic campaign to increase awareness could be a powerful and relatively inexpensive tool to expand registration and bring down dropout rates. While the problem of increasing retention rates in Latin America has proven to be a thorny one, it is important to realize that there are policies on the table that can immediately begin to have a measurable impact.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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