By  Steve Brito, Ana Corbacho and Rene Osorio

“G.E. Rodriguez’ mother said that his son almost died because of the refusal of the hospital to admit him in the absence of a document of a birth certificate. He did not appear in their records and he was even told to go back to her land to bring it.”

Birth registration is the very first step to social inclusion and development. A birth certificate officially records a child’s birth and establishes the existence of the child under the law. Without a birth certificate, children are at risk of lifelong exclusion from other fundamental benefits and rights, including access to education, health services, conditional cash transfers, and pensions. Moreover, they may be denied civil rights such as adoption and inheritance and be exposed to great jeopardy from exploitation and human trafficking. Despite these potentially terrible consequences, the economics literature has been largely silent about the links between birth registration and development.

About 10 percent of children under the age of five live without a birth certificate in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNICEF, 2010). This percentage compares favorably with other developing regions of the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where over 60 percent of the children do not have a birth certificate. But there is considerable heterogeneity across countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Unregistered births range from over 20 percent in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic to under 1 percent in Chile and Uruguay.

In a recent working paper, we uncover new evidence on the causal impact of the lack of birth certificates on education in the Dominican Republic. Lacking a birth certificate does not seem to impede enrollment in primary school. But it becomes a critical obstacle to graduate and advance in the education ladder. A child without a birth certificate has a 40 percent lower chance of finishing the first cycle of primary school compared with children whose birth is legally recognized by the state. This effect translates to a gap of about 1 year of lower educational attainment overall. Schools probably face difficulty in awarding diplomas to children who lack legal proof of their identity.

In a forthcoming study, we also looked at the impact of birth registration on immunization records. Proper immunization is critically important to reduce infant morbidity and mortality, as well as risks of disease outbreaks at the community level. Also, vaccination at the appropriate age has positive effects on cognitive development, educational achievement, and productivity. Our results suggest that children without birth certificates receive fewer vaccines and generally not in line with recommended schedule. The underlying mechanism could be related to the challenge of proving a child’s age, leading to fewer shots and/or delays in their administration.

There are missed opportunities to regularize children’s birth registration. It is evident that most children in our region receive at least one immunization shot and enter the education system. This indicates that they come into formal contact with the state at least once during their early childhood, even if their birth was not properly registered. This calls for concerted government action to ensure this very first step to social inclusion and development.

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