Census

Overview

A population and housing census is among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises a nation can undertake. It requires careful planning, resourcing and implementation – from mapping an entire country, mobilizing and training large numbers of enumerators, and conducting major public awareness campaigns, to canvassing all households, carefully monitoring census activities, and analysing, disseminating and using the resulting data.

A census involves the complete enumeration of the population in a country, territory or area, and should be conducted at least once every 10 years. It generates a wealth of data, including numbers of people, their spatial distribution, age and sex structure, as well as their living conditions and other key socioeconomic characteristics. This information is critical for good governance, policy formulation, development planning, risk reduction, crisis response, social welfare programmes and business market analyses.

UNFPA provides technical and financial support to ensure that censuses are of high quality, uphold international principles and standards, and produce data that are widely disseminated and utilized for development.

2020 Census Round

The 2020 census round – occurring from 2015 to 2024 – takes place against a changing global landscape. As countries around the world pursue a range of new global commitments, including the 2030 Agenda, there is growing demand for disaggregated data at all levels. Censuses are additionally modernizing, with the adoption of new technologies including Geographic Information Systems. These shifts are accompanied by increasing demands on census takers, and a need to strengthen national capacities.

In 2017, the UNFPA launched its strategy for the 2020 census (which was then revised in July 2019). The strategy commits to supporting the modernization of the census, including the use of innovative census technologies and methodologies, greater use of geo-referenced census data to generate demographic intelligence, and wider dissemination of, and access to, census data.
 

How is the information used?

An enumerator at work in Bamyan, Afghanistan. ©UNFPA/Lorenzo Tugnoli

Today, with major demographic shifts occurring and increased attention on international development, accurate and timely data are more important than ever.

The unique advantage of the census is that it represents the entire statistical universe, down to the smallest geographical unit, of a country or region. Decision makers need this information for all kinds of development work, including the design and monitoring of policies and programmes.

Often, a national census is the only source of information for identifying forms of social, demographic or economic exclusion – such as inequalities by geographic location, race, ethnicity, religion or other characteristics. The census 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.

Census information is a key data source for major development efforts. Up to 98 of the 230 indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals require population data for monitoring. Censuses are also the basis of sampling frames for national surveys.  

What are the challenges?

With censuses typically conducted every decade, many national statistics offices face capacity challenges, as it is hard to retain expertise between census rounds. Furthermore, the emergence of new technologies and methodologies requires new skills that statistics offices may not have. Lack of relevant expertise also affects the utilization of census data. 

Census taking, by virtue of its scale, is a costly exercise that requires careful budgeting and timely resource mobilization. Many censuses are postponed due to lack of funding or delayed release of funds. Creating partnerships with major stakeholders, including development partners, civil society and the private sector, is crucial for the successful implementation and continuity of censuses. 

Conflict and instability in many countries pose additional challenges that make census enumeration impossible in some areas.  In highly stressed countries and fragile settings, recent and reliable demographic data can often be missing or incomplete, as traditional censuses may not be possible due to conflict or security concerns. Also, large population displacements may quickly render existing information outdated. In those cases, UNFPA supports the implementation of a full or partial hybrid census to fill in data gaps.

UNFPA in action 

Since its inception, one of UNFPA’s core mandates has been to support the collection, processing, analysis, dissemination and use of census data for development. In the 2020 census round, UNFPA’s key areas of support include:

  • Strengthening national census capacity. UNFPA provides Census Technical Advisers, Geographic Information Systems and data processing experts, operations support, and trainings on issues such as small area estimation methods, geospatial analysis, mapping population vulnerabilities and access to services. 
  • Developing census technical and operational guidance tools. These include technical briefs on topics such as measuring disability, migration and marriage registration in censuses, hybrid census methodology, migration analysis, and post-enumeration surveys, as well as step-by-step census guides, Gantt chart templates, and key operational and financial management requirements for census projects. Together with the US Census Bureau, UNFPA has released technical notes on fertility measurement, measuring migration, census data archiving and preservation, and counting the hard-to-count populations. 
  • Promoting dissemination and open access to census data. UNFPA is preparing to launch the Population Data Platform  –an interactive, web-based data platform that integrates quantitative and geospatial data, including census data, with in-built dynamic analytic functions.
  • Brokering South-South cooperation for census support. UNFPA organizes South-South study tours and technical exchanges, in which national statistical offices can learn from each other, and also enables tablet sharing between countries. 
  • Leveraging institutional partnerships. UNFPA has established strategic global, regional and national partnerships to enable more effective and efficient census support. These include, partnerships with the UN Statistics Division, the US Census Bureau, the World Bank, Statistics Korea,  WorldPop/Flowminder and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network through the GRID3 initiative.  
  • Mobilizing resources for censuses. UNFPA supports resource mobilization at country, regional and global levels. In November 2019, UNFPA will launch the Population Data Thematic Fund to support census modernization, capacity strengthening, and improved access to census data as a public good.  

UNFPA’s presence in 155 countries, support from six regional offices, and inter-divisional teams at the HQ level help to ensure coordinated support to the 2020 census round. 
 

Last updated 13 August 2019.

Census in the coming years

A census is among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises that a nation undertakes. During the years 2018-2021, more than 150 countries and territories are scheduled to conduct a census. UNFPA provides technical support to developing countries during all stages of a national census to ensure that everyone is counted and accounted for in the pursuit of sustainable development​.​

2018 2019 2020 2021
2018: 20 countries scheduled for census
The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.