For the past two months, I have been working with Save the Children’s Program Development and Quality team in Beirut, Lebanon.
I studied abroad in Beirut in 2010, a year before the start of the Syria crisis. Joining the Global Human Development Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I knew that I wanted to return here for the summer. Lebanon has achieved a relatively high level of economic development despite a fifteen-year civil war that ended in 1990, a month-long war with Israel in July 2006, and intermittent armed clashes in the north between 2007 and 2015, and I wanted to learn how international NGOs like Save the Children were helping the country respond to the influx of over one million Syrian refugees.
One of the most interesting projects that I’ve worked on is the preparation of a birth registration pilot.
Birth registration, in short, is the process through which a child’s birth is officially recorded by a government authority – a critical first step in ensuring that the child has a legal identity. Having an identity is a basic human right, as outlined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and allows people to travel, access government services, receive healthcare, go to school, work, get married, confirm parentage, buy/inherit property, vote, etc. It is a process that I previously took for granted.
Since the onset of the Syria crisis, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians (including both those registered and not registered with UNHCR) have fled to Lebanon. As of 2015, when UNHCR stopped registering new refugees, over 50,000 Syrian children had been born in Lebanon. Those whose births are not registered risk becoming stateless. A lack of documentation also poses a significant obstacle to an eventual return to Syria or resettlement to another country. Birth registration, therefore, is an important part of any humanitarian response.
I learned that there are many challenges to Syrian families registering the birth of a child in Lebanon. The process can be complicated and costly, and requires civil documentation, including a marriage certificate and legal residency, that many families lack. Equally important, the process can be intimidating, as it often requires crossing checkpoints and entering government buildings in a context that is not always welcoming to refugees. Prior to May 2018, Syrian families had one year to register a child’s birth – or else they had to go through a lengthy court procedure.
Shortly before I arrived in Lebanon, the government changed the policy to allow unregistered Syrian children born in Lebanon between January 2011 and February 2018 to be retroactively registered through the regular, four-step process, rather than through the court procedure. In response to the new caseload and donor requests, Save the Children planned to assist its shelter beneficiaries – those Syrian families receiving assistance with housing rehabilitation or minor repairs – with the birth registration process. I was asked to learn about the process, make recommendations for the pilot, and prepare training materials for new staff.
After doing background research on the new policy, I visited our North office to better understand and document the services upon which we planned to expand. Save the Children was already providing families with information about the birth registration process through outreach volunteers (Syrian refugees who are trained to lead weekly info sessions in their communities) and caseworkers (Save the Children staff who provide case management to very vulnerable families). If outreach volunteers or caseworkers encountered families who were unable to complete the birth registration process on their own, they referred the families to partner organizations that then assisted with the process.
After visiting our North team, I met with several partner organizations who provide civil documentation assistance to learn about their best practices, lessons learned, and the many legal and procedural challenges that make it difficult for families to register births despite the new policy. One major challenge is the requirement of a marriage certificate, which is often difficult for young couples to obtain because at least one partner needs legal residency in Lebanon. Another, more systematic challenge is the limited capacity of relevant offices, and inconsistencies between policy and practice.
Partner organizations, I learned, hire lawyers to represent complicated cases – unregistered married couples, families without legal residency who live near a checkpoint, female-headed households with multiple children – and have been building relationships with relevant offices for years. I expressed concern that Save the Children was not prepared for the project.
My team ultimately decided that Save the Children would not move forward with the pilot, a decision with which I strongly agreed. Although the organization wants to provide a more holistic package of services to families, civil documentation extends beyond Save the Children’s expertise, which in Lebanon includes child protection, child rights governance, education, livelihoods, shelter, and WASH (waster, sanitation, and hygiene). I considered this – an organization deciding not to implement a project without the necessary institutional capacity despite guaranteed funding – a success.
The project, however, did not end there, as the Shelter team still needed to assess how many of its families have unregistered children and refer those who need support to partner organizations. Additionally, the Shelter team will ask future beneficiaries about birth registration in their routine household survey. Before I arrived, the team had developed a questionnaire to gather initial information. I was tasked with analyzing the data, checking the margin of error for families who reported completing the process for all of their children, and, if necessary, updating the questionnaire accordingly.
Based on the initial data, I restructured the questionnaire. This was a very challenging task. Although I knew what questions to ask, I had to think carefully about the logic flow of each question given a variety of possible responses (see picture below). I then went with a Shelter team member and Child Protection caseworker to “test” out the questionnaire with fourteen families in Beirut. These families had reported that all of their children are registered, but we discovered that this was not always the case. This confirmed that the original questionnaire did not consistently capture the information we needed. The updated questionnaire, however, had gaps as well. Who knew that good data collection tools could be so difficult to develop?
Based on these visits, I worked with the Shelter and Child Protection Technical Advisors to make further edits. I also collaborated with our Information Management Officer, who coded the questionnaire for digital data collection, to ensure that there were no technical errors. He told me that it was the most difficult questionnaire he’s ever coded!
Then, more testing and more revisions. And then even more revisions. Based on my observation of questionnaire testing, and a complicated referral pathway, I wrote up detailed guidance on how to conduct the calls and refer families to partner organizations. Starting next week, caseworkers will call hundreds of families using these tools. And I will enroll in a survey methods course.
This project has taught me several important things:
International development organizations need to carefully consider whether donor-driven projects are in the best interest of the families with whom they work. Additionally, it is okay to decide not to move forward with a planned project – as long as families are instead referred to the appropriate services. Even though Save the Children is no longer implementing the pilot, we are still committing many resources (including the lengthy questionnaire development and data collection process!) to ensure that the families we planned to assist receive proper support.
Guided by inter-agency coordination efforts and working groups, there is good collaboration and resource sharing among NGOs partaking in the Syrian response in Lebanon. Organizations that I met with, although wary of “NGO overcrowding,” were very helpful in explaining the process, best practices, and challenges. We are, after all, working toward the same goal: ensuring that all Syrian children obtain a proper birth certificate.
Good data collection is hard! And it important to test, test, and test again before asking families to provide personal information. Equally important is that all data collectors know what to look for, and how to document and respond to a variety of different scenarios.
Even though it is complicated and can be costly, many Syrian families do not need assistance with the birth registration process. I was surprised that about a fourth of families surveyed in the Beirut/Mount Lebanon region reported that all of their children are registered. My supervisor reminded me that being a refugee does not imply a lack of knowledge and resources – and she was completely right.