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Funding Statement

By Szreter - Posted on 15 June 2010

The comparative history of civil identity registration systems is an innovative research field which has extremely timely policy relevance. The scholarly importance of this conference will be in bringing together scholars scattered across the world to establish recognition for the coherence of their historical research in this area and to stimulate further advances in research through intellectual exchange. It is also part of the conference's design to seek direct impact among policy practitioners by inviting key individuals already known to the organisers, from organisations such as DfID, World Bank, WHO, Plan International, to attend as participants. It will be a History and Policy conference.

Historians have given much attention to census taking but there has only been one substantial publication on the comparative history of identity documentation, the excellent pioneering volume edited by Caplan and Torpey, Documenting Individual Identity (Princeton University Press 2001). That original initiative focused almost entirely on exploring European nation-state dimensions of this subject in the post-Enlightenment era. The proposed conference would aspire to produce an equally distinguished and influential publication, but one which will present a rather wider geographical and chronological range of historical studies. It will focus less on the cultural and technological issues of techniques for documenting individual identity, like passports and finger-printing addressed in that previous volume, and rather more on the political economy and legaladministrative histories of systems of civil registration and their implications for questions of civil empowerment or disempowerment.

As such the conference's findings will have relevance for contemporary development policy concerns. During the last five years Unicef and WHO have increasingly drawn attention to the absence of civil identity registration systems for individual citizens throughout the world's poorest regions. They estimate that as many as two in five of all persons born are not registered at birth. There is now considerable policy activity underway to address this problem with a major philanthropic organization, Plan International, promoting birth registration systems in poor communities and with some national governments, such as in Ghana and in Nigeria responding to donor offers to provide assistance to establish such civil registration schemes. However, the record of these recent initiatives has been mixed with some of the most ambitious already experiencing serious problems.

By drawing on scholars from across the world, there is now a critical mass of well researched case-studies available for a conference to be convened to show-case this historical research to the international policy community, and provoke further questions for comparative research. Conference themes will include the diverse historical origins, evolution and sometimes disintegration of such systems, some dating back many hundreds of years, as in China. The potential dangers as well as benefits of such systems. The complex historical relationship of such systems to economic activity, social security provisions and public health, as well as to the more well-known policing and national security concerns. Colonial and postcolonial systems; and the emergence of the human rights agenda during the twentieth century and the way this relates to earlier historical characteristics of identity registration.