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Minimbah Project: Ensuring proof of birth for all Australians

Minimbah Project Will Winter in The Australian Business Executive

Minimbah Project is a not-for-profit, charitable organization that raises funds from government, business, community groups and private donors to provide birth certificates for vulnerable Australians.

National Coordinator Will Winter has over thirty years’ experience in the provision of business advisory services, project management, regional economics, and community strengthening initiatives. He thrives in seeing multi-faceted value propositions come to life via profitable business operations, aligned with ‘social good’ outcomes. Funded variously through corporate, government, and private philanthropy, the Minimbah Project complements a host of social programmes by collaborating with businesses and human service providers to assist struggling Australians to obtain birth certificates. It is estimated that more than 1.2 billion people worldwide (including 230 million children) do not have access to proof of birth, including about 500,000 Australians. Mr Winter spoke with us recently to discuss the origins of the Minimbah Project, why it is so important for children to have their births registered, and how the project is leveraging corporate engagement to achieve its long-term goal of ensuring that all Australians have access to proof of birth.

Building financial literacy

“The Minimbah Project grew out of a University of New England student-led initiative more than ten years ago. Our initial focus was to build financial literacy skills in the small Minimbah Primary School located here in Armidale,” Mr Winter explains.

An early focus for the project was to set up bank accounts for children – a large percentage of whom are Indigenous or otherwise come from culturally diverse backgrounds. However, the university student team soon discovered that 95% of children in the school were unable to open accounts because they didn’t have access to birth certificates.

“This led to a quick change of focus, in which we began to assist the children and their families to apply for about 100 birth certificates in the first year. The community rallied behind us, supported by players from the Eels Rugby League club in Sydney, local politicians and service groups to provide what turned out to be our first and fun-filled ‘Signup Day’. From these small beginnings the Minimbah Project has grown to receive funding from businesses and government agencies for the provision of birth certificates to more than 16,000 applicants, mostly children. And of these about 3,000 were subsequently identified as not having their births registered.”

The Minimbah Project’s success has been built on grass-root community networks and thousands of volunteer hours. Funding to pay for birth certificates is sourced from local and other business donations, private philanthropists, and government agencies. An estimated half-million Australians do not have access birth certificates, so there is always a constant demand for Signup Days in communities. The Minimbah Project is run under the auspices of Origenate Australia Ltd – a tax-deductible charitable company with full DGR status, dedicated to strengthening citizenship and personal identity for disadvantaged Australian families via the provision of birth certificates.

“Without a birth certificate, people face life-long struggles to access mainstream services like getting a driver’s license, enrolling in school, being accepted for job-training programs, obtaining tax file numbers, accessing health services, joining sporting clubs, opening bank accounts, and tracking superannuation,” Mr Winter said.

“A birth certificate and its necessary precursor – birth registration – is the first event in a child’s life which provides a basis for lifelong civic identity, social ancestry, and all the protections afforded under law. It also provides a leg up into society for schooling and jobs; family history and a sense of belonging in community. There’s a swag of costs and benefits which flow from this key life event – legal, economic, social, cultural and personal.” Mr Winter said.

Minimbah Project Will Winter in The Australian Business Executive
The Minimbah Project has grown to receive funding from businesses and government agencies for the provision of birth certificates to more than 16,000 applicants, mostly children

“At any time there are up to five hundred thousand Australians who don’t have access to a birth certificate. This is a huge number for a developed nation like Australia. It is estimated that there are thousands of additional people imprisoned each year, at great cost to society, due to lack of birth certificates and associated proof of identity. It’s a big problem.

“We want to address the source of these issues by making sure that everyone and most importantly, every child, has a birth certificate. In addition to providing ‘Signup Days’ we also lobby governments for more efficient and digitised birth registration systems so it will eventually become a once-in-a-lifetime, automatic event. There are likely to be billions of dollars of benefits in terms of social costs averted, and economic efficiencies to be gained via these proposed reforms. Digital technologies are already available to replace clunky, paper-based systems and the sooner these can be implemented, the sooner these benefits can be achieved.”

“The problem starts when parents fail to register their child’s birth. This must be done first to enable a successful application for a birth certificate. It is the parents’ responsibility to apply for their child’s registration within 60 days of birth, but for many reasons, this often does not occur.

“If the mother and father are incapable of applying for whatever reason, their child will miss out on a birth certificate. It is not until perhaps four or five years later, when their children need to enrol for school, that the issue comes to light. It can even occur later in life such as when the child turns sixteen years old and needs a tax-file number to apply for a work internship, or to obtain a driver’s license.”

The issue is widespread, with as many as 1.2 billion people worldwide, including about half a million Australians not obtaining, or otherwise not having access to proof of birth documents. The evidence is clear that it affects disadvantaged families more than others, and it has been identified as a significant factor behind high Indigenous incarceration rates. It is also a marker for the perpetuation of intergenerational poverty for disadvantaged families.

“The statistics are especially concerning for Indigenous kids”, Mr Winter explains. “Our work particularly focusses on Indigenous people and disadvantaged groups. For instance, about one-third of Aboriginal children, or about seven thousand kids born every year, finish their first year of life without having access to a birth certificate”.

Minimbah Project Will Winter in The Australian Business Executive
With an openness to work with corporates of all sizes on this vital issue, the Minimbah Project is well on the way to achieving its goal of ensuring proof of birth for all Australians, now and into the future

Under the Constitution, registration of births is a state-based matter. Registries do what they can, however their systems are mostly paper-based and have evolved over the past hundred years or more. Being government, they struggle to work from the ground up. This is a key factor behind the ongoing success of the Minimbah Project, which has been held up by UNICEF Australia and other authorities as a model of best practice. This ‘bottom-up’ and ‘friendly’ approach encourages many more children and their families to participate in “Signup Days”. As they do, communities gather around to help and celebrate local identity with the kids, supported by friends and family.

“Often over the years we’ve been encouraged by Registrars of Births, Deaths, Marriages (BDM) to keep going with our work. They acknowledge that as government they cannot do what the Minimbah Project can, through its organic networks and innovative, ‘fun’ ways of responding to what seems to be an intractable problem in both metro and rural communities.”

The Minimbah Project ‘Signup Days’ are deliberately planned to align with key community events. We work with schools, sporting clubs, justices of the peace, service clubs and others. The days can involve musicians, sporting events, local art and plenty of food as a way of celebrating local identity while teams of volunteers assist with paperwork to help kids and their caregivers apply for birth certificates. We try to ensure that through these events, every child in need of a birth certificate has an opportunity to apply, helped by their friends and family.

“Because of their accessible and non-threatening approach, lots of people come forward. As a result, about one-third of Minimbah birth certificate applicants are later identified by the Registries as not having their births registered. Frequently you’ll get multiple generations from one family all commenting that they have never owned a birth certificate, and some of the grandmothers laugh that they don’t know how old they are because they were part of the stolen generation, or for some other reason their birth was never registered.”

Corporate engagement

The organisation has received valuable funding over the years from private and public companies, including Optus. Universities and family support groups have also sponsored the work, with tens of thousands of volunteer hours helping to minimise overhead costs associated with delivery of Signup Days. Australia’s third largest superannuation company UniSuper has recently offered to fund some of the scheduled Signups in the first half of 2022, but more is needed.

“We love working with businesses. It’s a great way to build relationships at a local level, while strengthening brand on a regional and national scale. If any business is interested to get involved we would love to hear from them.” Mr Winter said.

Minimbah Project Will Winter in The Australian Business Executive
Minimbah Project is a not-for-profit, charitable organization that raises funds from government, business, community groups and private donors to provide birth certificates for vulnerable Australians

“Costs are kept to a minimum because we’re so well assisted by community groups and volunteers. Pretty-well every dollar is used to help disadvantaged Australians to obtain birth certificates.

“The process works best for businesses interested in working with community-based organisations such as schools, sporting groups, service clubs, hospitals and family support services. It’s all about identifying local needs and responding with community-based solutions.

“One thing for sure, demand for birth certificates far outstrips supply. It’s everywhere, but often flies under the radar with disadvantaged groups. So, for businesses keen to make a big impact, identifying the needs of these groups in our communities can be a great place to start. Whether it’s for one child or for a thousand, the benefits of birth certificates can be lifechanging.”

“When businesses contact us to express interest in sponsorship or support, we like to first discuss their requirements, as well as the groups they have identified and who they’d like to work with. Our team then helps to provide whatever resources we can to ensure that local Signup Days are delivered as efficiently as possible, for maximum positive effect.

“Some of the companies we work with encourage their employees to volunteer on the day(s). Some are also considering salary sacrifice arrangements for their staff, as part of corporate objectives to fund certain numbers of pre-schoolers or early school leaving teenagers, as part of their ongoing commitment to this work,” Mr Winter adds.

“Our programs are very much fuelled by the generosity of donors, in-kind resources and volunteer hours available to us. We could easily assist more than 10,000 children each year to obtain birth certificates if we had sufficient funding”, Mr Winter said.

“Another aspect of what we do is shed light on the problem and propose positive, digitally based solutions with government and other stakeholders. It’s all about proof of identity as a basis for lifelong belonging and full participation in society. It’s also about celebrating who we are as Australians to ensure practical reconciliation and a ‘fair go’ for all – particularly for disadvantaged new-borns and children.”

With an openness to work with corporates of all sizes on this vital issue, the Minimbah Project is well on the way to achieving its goal of ensuring proof of birth for all Australians, now and into the future. You can find out more about the Minimbah Project by visiting www.minimbahproject.org.au.

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