Counting the World: UNFPA Highlights the Challenges of Census-TakingSeptember 13, 2012 By Carolyn Lamere
The United Nations biannual population projections are some of the most (if not the most) widely used numbers in demography. Researchers and policymakers alike rely on the figures to plan for present and future challenges. But few consider the story behind the statistics. Where does the data come from? The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently released a short documentary on conducting censuses in challenging environments, with a spotlight on Indonesia, Chad, the Palestinian Territories, Belarus, and Bolivia.
Every 10 Years
Each of the countries featured have a different set of challenges, but all have received funding and training from UNFPA to help conduct their censuses. While UNFPA does not directly conduct censuses in any country, it provides financial and technical support to help ensure figures are as accurate as possible. The documentary helps highlight both the difficulties of conducting these surveys in regions with few resources, and the necessity of doing so.
Apart from resource challenges, conducting the census can also be difficult for political or cultural reasons. But UNFPA stresses that the aim is to provide a tool to help lawmakers improve the lives of their constituents. “Without the census, policies cannot be based on evidence,” said UNFPA analyst Sabrina Juran. “It’s very critical that every 10 years the census is conducted.”
Irregular updates can lead to inaccurate assumptions which then shape inappropriate policy interventions. For example, much of the details of Afghanistan’s demography and health indicators had been assumed until the results of a demographic survey were released last year and they were surprising in many respects, as Elizabeth Leahy Madsen explains in ECSP Report 14.
Making Policy Using Demography
Accurate statistics help policymakers make the best decisions. Technical advisor Ralph Hakkert suggests, for example, that trends like urbanization in Indonesia are predictable and manageable with proper planning:
Often the problems of urbanization are aggravated by the fact that countries do not plan ahead for these kinds of processes. And one of the things the census can help do is anticipate some of the processes that are going to happen inevitably by identifying…what the migration streams are, what the situation is in rural areas, where you can expect people to leave, and where you can expect people to go.
But for many developed countries, it’s not about increasing numbers. The census in Belarus revealed a much smaller population than officials had anticipated. High emigration and low fertility rates mean that surveyors found 500,000 fewer people than anticipated.
In Bolivia the challenge is to properly account for its diversity, as indigenous peoples have been excluded from the political process in the past. Indigenous Bolivians, who account for the majority of the country, want to make sure they are represented, even marching to demand a census at one point. Their enthusiasm resonated with Jaime Nadal Roig, a UNFPA representative in Bolivia: “For these people, having the census is extremely important…they have been left aside from public policies in the past.”
As population growth is generally highest in developing countries and rural areas, many of the places most in need of counting are difficult to access. Much of Indonesia is mountainous, for example, and census-takers must navigate footpaths to cover the entire population. In Chad, the lack of roads is compounded by a history of violence which has long prevented surveyors from finishing the task. And in the Palestinian Territories, checkpoints limit mobility.
“The census is among the most complex and massive peace-time exercises a nation can undertake. It’s huge,” said Juran. Counting the World not only highlights how challenging conducting a census can be, but also illustrates the necessity of having accurate data to shape national, regional, and local policies.
Video Credit: “Counting the World,” courtesy of UNFPA.