Taking the Census in Panama, by Car, Foot, Boat and Saddle

Taking the Census in Panama, by Car, Foot, Boat and Saddle
Shifts work around the clock in Panama City to categorize census forms, verity the information and double-check figures. Photo: Trygve Olframes/UNFPA.
  • 30 July 2010

PANAMA CITY — Fourteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are carrying out population and housing censuses this year as part of the 2010 round, a global effort by governments to count their citizens, which happens every decade in most countries.

Even in a modestly sized country such as Panama (estimated at 3.3 million people), the census operation involved hiring thousands of census takers—125,000 in fact, as well as 13,000 supervisors. In the census enumeration carried out here between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on May 16, each census taker was responsible for their own parcel of the urban grid containing 10 to 15 homes, or about six to ten homes in rural areas.

While the population living in cities is easily reached by foot, census takers in the country-side accessing hard-to-reach areas often inhabited by indigenous groups sometimes must travel up to three hours on horseback to get to the villages they are covering.

Can’t get there by car

“You can’t get to a lot of villages by car. In those cases, we use horses or boats,” explained Benjamin Rodriguez, a regional census inspector who coordinated nearly 800 census takers in the Penonomé area in Coclé province located on Panama’s Pacific coast, about a two-hour drive west from Panama City. In his area, more than 100 horses and 15 boats were used to bring census takers to their destinations.

A year and a half of preparations culminates in a single day of information gathering. In larger countries such as Brazil and Mexico, the census is spread over a period of several weeks and costs millions of dollars—in the case of Panama, $16 million, with $9.3 million reserved for the information-gathering on the day of the census alone.

Aníbal Sánchez Aguilar, sub-director of statistics at the National Institute of Statistics and Information of Peru described the 2007 census there as the “largest operation undertaken by a government during times of peace.”

Identifying indigenous populations

In multicultural societies, which include most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, an important aspect of census taking is to identify indigenous and afro-descendent populations.

But ethnic groups do not only reside in the rural areas where they originated. “Many have moved to cities and often live in poverty. Under these new conditions they often do not identify themselves as indigenous people and are therefore often missed by government policies that aim to improve the quality of life for this segment of the population,” explained UNFPA’s Census Adviser in Latin America and the Caribbean, Carlos Ellis.

Another reason for identifying indigenous groups and afro-descendent populations is that they have gained consciousness and pride of their identity and therefore want to be identified as distinct groups.

Two crucial stages: preparation and processing

There are two crucial stages in organizing a census, said Ellis: the time set aside for preparations and the processing of information.

“Proper mapping of the country and its population is an extremely important part of preparations. Without it, you can’t achieve a good quality census,” said Ellis.

Paying sufficient attention to the processing stage is equally crucial. “Some governments believe that the job is done when the information gathering has been carried out, but the processing of the data is just as important,” he said.

The sheer volume of data can also be a challenge. In large countries, the cost of carrying out a census can be almost prohibitively high. In Mexico, a country with about 105 million inhabitants, more than 600,000 census takers are needed to cover the whole country. If they are paid workers, as opposed to volunteers, the salary cost alone will be extremely high.

Using technical solutions strategically

No country wants to be behind in terms of technology, but it’s not always the most high-tech solution that is the most adequate for every census. Danis Cedeño, the Director of Panama’s National Institute of Statistics and Census said his country chose to go for the use of 1.4 million traditional paper questionnaires, rather than collecting data on small computers or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). Electronic devices are more expensive and are also known to break down, especially in hot and humid tropical conditions.

UNFPA assists countries in carrying out their census by training personnel at the national institutes of statistics. “These jobs are not among the highest paid, so there is a significant turnaround of staff,” said Ellis. “If you conduct a training workshop and then come back two years later, you are unlikely to find the same people working at the institute. Training workshops therefore must be a recurring event in almost every country in the region.”

UNFPA trains technicians in how to capture the collected data and how to look for errors and inconsistencies. Ahead of the census, the organization also assists with cartography, ensuring that all geographical areas of a country are correctly mapped and covered by the census.

Speaking on the importance of censuses in her recent statement on World Population Day, UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said: “Censuses and population data play a critical role in development and humanitarian response and recovery. With quality data we can better track and make greater progress to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and promote and protect the dignity and human rights of all people.”

— Trygve Olfarnes

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