Nader Atta was gazing out his office window one day early in the pandemic. His office, on a top floor of a downtown Ramallah building, looks out onto a government building, where he frequently takes meetings with staff at the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior. It was a view he’d seen a thousand times — but on that day in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, inspiration struck.
“Nobody was in the streets, and all the office buildings were closed,” Atta, an analyst for UNDP’s Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People, recalls. “But I’m sure people are still giving birth and people are still dying. How is the ministry registering these people?”
In the past, new parents were put through a cumbersome, time-consuming bureaucratic process to register a birth. Having received a handwritten piece of paper from the hospital, they would then have to physically deliver it to the Ministry of the Interior. Only then would they receive the official birth certificate. Due to this unwieldy procedure, it was tempting for parents, especially those who live outside urban areas, to put it off, sometimes for years. As a result, the government didn’t have a fully up-to-date population registry.
Not having a birth certificate can present a problem in any part of the world. But in the occupied Palestinian territories, it’s even more important. That’s because new babies must be registered to receive critical state services, freedoms, and even official Palestinian citizenship. “Our situation here is a little complex,” Atta explains. “Any live birth must also be shared with the Israeli authorities. If I want to travel anywhere with my son or daughter, if they’re not recorded in the Palestinian civil registry that means it’s also not recorded in the Israeli registry, which means the Israeli authorities can send you back from checkpoints and border crossings.”
What’s more, if parents failed to register a birth in person at the Ministry of the Interior, the child would be unable to receive state services. “That includes school, the doctor, health insurance and getting a passport,” Atta says.
The answer, which came as he was gazing out his office window, was simple. “Why don’t we put together a digital platform that connects hospitals in the West Bank directly with the Ministry of the Interior?” he wondered.
Working with the Ministries of Health and the Interior, Atta and his colleagues have done exactly that. After an initial pilot at the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah, staff at West Bank hospitals enter details of births and deaths into an online system which shares data with the ministries. “The rollout team was able to overcome challenges very fast,” says Atta. “In three months, everything was up and running. Now, 100 percent of public and approximately 95 percent of private hospitals have been connected.”
The new system has also had a great impact on registering people who have died. It has reduced incidents of fraud and identity theft, saving the Ministry of the Interior a great deal of money and time. The ministry is now able to liaise with banks to close the accounts of those who have died, which makes it more difficult for people to sell the property of the deceased without the proper authorization.
Digitizing data on births and deaths does much more, though, than just relieve the stress of new parents. Its impact has broad potential. The new digital system eliminates the need for paper to record the details of a birth, which saves the ministry over US$30,000 a year. “Knowing the number of births straight from the hospital makes it easier for us to serve the population,” says Aktham Namoora, Director of IT for the Ministry of the Interior. Namoora’s counterpart at the Ministry of Health, Ali Al Helou, echoes this: “Digital registration saves a lot of time. Accurate and up-to-date data helps both the Ministry of Health and the Interior make the right decisions at the right time.”
“The statistics we generate now can be very helpful for the Ministry of Health in determining the number of administrative staff or nurses we need to care for newborns,” he says. “This information is also useful to the Ministry of Education in planning for teachers and numbers of classes.”
The new digital way of working is so successful that ministry staff and their partners at UNDP are envisioning how to broaden the impact geographically, as well as to other ministries. “We’d like to implement the system in Gaza, too,” says Nader Atta, “but that will be a little more complicated.” Gaza has an unreliable electricity supply, as well as political instability.
In the West Bank, Aktham Namoora from the Ministry of the Interior is excited about the potential for electronic records to simplify all kinds of government business. “There are many ministries who can benefit from this,” he says, including potentially the many ministries dealing with the fraught issue of land in the West Bank.
The most important legacy of the programme, however, is a new type of partnership between UNDP and the government of the West Bank. In the past, says Namoora, UNDP has helped the Ministry of the Interior with building and office space construction and technology equipment supply. But a new way of working offers even more potential returns than a new building. “This new type of project is maybe more important,” Namoora says, “because it gives us more benefits in the future than past projects.”