"Valid, reliable, timely, culturally relevant and internationally comparable data form the basis for policy and program development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation."
— ICPD PoA, para 12.1
A population and housing census is the primary source of information about the number and characteristics of a given population in each locality. It takes stock of the most important asset of countries: their human capital.
Even in ancient times, rulers counted their subjects for the purpose of taxation and recruitment. In the mid-1950s, worldwide consensus established the key features of a census: Individual enumeration (confidentiality) within a defined area (universality) over a short time-frame (simultaneity) and at regular intervals (periodicity).
A population census provides a sampling frame, as well as a baseline for population and related functional projections that are crucial for sectoral planning. Further, insofar as international definitions and classifications are used, censuses also provide for the comparability of basic development indicators among countries, including many of those that are used to benchmark progress in achieving the MDGs.
Whereas developed countries have a wealth of statistics that could substitute for census data, developing countries typically lack well-maintained administrative registries and longitudinal data that are needed for tracking trends. This makes regular, periodic censuses all the more important for governments and potential donors. However, many countries lack the funding, political will or capacity to conduct a regular census. Civil strife and disturbances may also interfere with the process.
UNFPA and its partners are strong advocates of population and housing censuses taken at least every ten years. Toward this end, UNFPA has already begun mobilizing support for the 2010 round of census-taking.
Although censuses are conducted by national governments, UNFPA plays a lead role in advocating and mobilizing support for this undertaking. In many countries, UNFPA helps develop capacity in technical aspects of the process, including cartography, data collection and processing and data analysis and dissemination. Many countries would have been unable to conduct censuses without the assistance provided by the Fund. In a number of these countries, these censuses have provided the sole source of information on the population and its characteristics, without which, evidence-based development planning would not have been possible.
UNFPA, working in collaboration with partners, such as UN Statistics Division, PARIS21 and others, has taken the lead in organizing expert meetings to find ways to develop census-taking capacity in developing countries. For example, UNFPA was instrumental in organizing several international meetings on census. In 2001 UNFPA organized an international meeting to review funding issues that emerged in the 2000 round of census and map the way to greater cost-effectiveness and stability for the next round. UNFPA organized a second meeting in 2002 to discuss new ideas for reducing census costs and assess alternative census-taking approaches.
UNFPA has taken a prominent role in supporting several countries undertaking their first census in post-emergency situations or those that required technical assistance or support for other reasons.
In Afghanistan, UNFPA is helping to organize the country’s first complete Population and Housing Census. The census, to be conducted by Afghanistan's Central Statistics Office, will delineate the boundaries of the country's 34 provinces and 398 districts, and fix the positions of more than 38,000 villages. It will also digitially map approximately 48,000 enumeration areas, recruit and train more than 512,800 enumerators and 10,500 controllers, and develop a census questionnaire and detailed instruction manuals for them. The process will bolster the capacity of the national statistical system and raise awareness of its role and importance.
In Haiti, the first census in 24 years was conducted with the support of UNFPA and others. It showed high unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and maternal health care, and the highest HIV prevalence in the Western Hemisphere.
In Cambodia, the National Institute of Statistics received UNFPA assistance in conducting a population survey to update the last general census (1998). In March 2004, more than 900 field staff enumerated households across the country's 24 provinces.
In Timor Leste the first official population enumeration, Census 2004, was conducted with UNFPA support. The lack of an address system was overcome by satellite imaging and state of- the-art technology, including aerial photography and Global Positioning System coding. In July 2004, nearly 4,000 census-takers visited households to obtain demographic, social and economic data for use in planning by this new country.
In Banda Aceh where a tsunami left a half million persons homeless, UNFPA in 2005 supported a provincial census that gives planners a better understanding of the impact of the tsunamiincluding the different ways women and men were affectedand the needs for expanded social services.
Analysis of census data was the focus of UNFPA assistance in Gambia, Tanzania and Uganda, where the Fund in 2004 helped governments analyze census results for more effective use of data in population and development planning.