How is the information used?
An enumerator at work in Bamyan, Afghanistan. ©UNFPA/Lorenzo Tugnoli
The unique advantage of the census is that it represents the entire statistical universe, down to the smallest geographical units, of a country or region. Planners need this information for all kinds of development work, including: assessing demographic trends; analysing socio-economic conditions; designing evidence-based poverty-reduction strategies; monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of policies; and tracking progress toward national and internationally agreed development goals.
The information also helps raise awareness about population issues among government decision-makers and the public at large. Additionally, a national census is often the only source of information for identifying forms of social, demographic or economic exclusion – such as inequalities by racial, ethnic, religious or other characteristics. It also provides data on disadvantaged regions and vulnerable groups, such as the poor, the young, the old, people living with disabilities, and women and girls.
Censuses can also empower local communities by giving them access to this critical data. And it can encourage participation in local decision-making by increasing knowledge of communities’ needs and by ensuring representation based on accurate numbers.
An enormous undertaking
A traditional population and housing census requires mapping an entire country, figuring out what technologies should be employed, mobilizing and training legions of enumerators, conducting a major public campaign, canvassing all households, collecting individual information, compiling hundreds of thousands – or millions – of completed questionnaires, monitoring procedures and results, and analysing and disseminating the data.
Though it is a very laborious and costly operation, it is a vital one. Only a census can provide the fine-grained and accurate data needed by analysts and policymakers to make informed, evidence-based development policies. It is recommended that a national census be conducted every 10 years to make comparable information available. A series of censuses allow experts to assess the past, describe the present and estimate for the future.
Censuses are conducted in “rounds.” The 2010 census round comprises those taking place between 2006 and 2015. As of 1 January 2014, 205 countries or areas had conducted a census in the current round. The 2020 census round will begin in 2015.
What are the challenges?
Because so much depends on the data produced, the process can become highly charged and requires careful monitoring. And because a census exercise typically occurs once every decade, it is hard to retain expertise in national statistical offices between censuses. By the time a new census rolls around, many experienced demographers or statisticians have moved on to retirement or the private sector.
Census taking is also very costly. Creating partnerships with major stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector, is crucial for the successful implementation and continuity of censuses.
Conflict situations in many countries pose additional challenges, as well. And despite the essential role of census data in evidence-based development plans and poverty-reduction strategies, they are not always converted into information that is useful for designing the most cost-effective and accurately targeted policies – a challenge UNFPA works to address.
UNFPA in action
Supporting countries in the collection, analysis and dissemination of census data for development is a critical part of UNFPA's mandate.
UNFPA play key roles in coordinating technical and financial assistance for censuses. This support can include resource mobilization, the provision of chief technical advisers, training in technical communication and advocacy, operating publicity campaigns, as well as developing census budgets, road maps, and instruments such as questionnaires and manuals.