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Scholarship article

An identity crisis

Agnes Björn, advisor to the Map Project, has made a similar journey in Plan International’s efforts to register children.

Plan International is one of the world’s largest NGOs for children, with a focus particularly on girls. Working in conflict, disaster and crisis situations in different countries has provided Agnes Björn, Head of Disaster Risk Management at Plan International, Sweden, with first-hand experience of the problems that arise when children are not officially registered at birth.

“Every year, 230 million children are born outside the system,” says Björn. “They have no identification or passport so they are basically stateless.”

Without a formal identity or address, these children “don’t exist” and can’t get access to basic needs, says Björn. “When people want to sign their children up for school or healthcare, there is a long delay, as it takes time to get registered and they might need to get an address first. Often, parents decide that it’s too much trouble and the children never enter school.”

The importance of having an address hit home for Björn while working at a refugee camp in Tanzania in 2015. A young girl named Grace was one of 3,000 children who drifted into the camp from Burundi without any parents or family. “Grace actually had an ID card but she didn’t have an address or know what part of the city she lived in,” says Björn. “This made it impossible for us to go back and find her parents or relatives to see if any of them were alive. If her address had been registered in the system, we could have let her family know that she was okay and that Plan International was looking after her.”

Plan International tends to go where people are most vulnerable in the world such as refugee camps and disaster areas, to tackle the biggest problem areas, whereas the Map Project, which is also a business idea, will initially try to navigate in less challenging places.

As more people get access to smartphones and the Internet, digital technology and platforms such as the Map Project can be game changers, says Björn, citing another example from her time in the field.

“I worked in a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. Both Facebook and Google had set up drones to provide WiFi access to the refugees there. People were very excited about getting access to information and being able to connect with their family members still in Burundi.”

Travel plays an important role in raising awareness, says Björn, who keeps track of the countries she visits on an app. “From my own personal experience I see that development is much more positive than we think compared to getting second-hand reports. If you haven’t been there, it is very difficult to understand what it is like. It is about getting a reality check and understanding how other people live and work – and to see, feel and taste the rest of the world, which I think is an amazing opportunity that our generation has.”

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