Data for Development

The Population and Housing Census: Counting Everyone

The traditional population and housing census is among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises a nation undertakes. It requires mapping the 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 analyzing and disseminating the data.

It is also one of the most important tools for policymakers: A population and housing census is the primary source of information on the number and characteristics of the population and its housing in each locality and in the country as a whole. It takes stock of the most important asset of countries: human capital.

Critical planning tool

Monitoring the Census in Viet Nam

HUNG YEN PROVINCE, Viet Nam — The interview proceeded with typical formality and courtesy:

– My name is Ngo Quang Khai and I would like to interview you in order to get information for the 2009 Census.

– Please, come in and take a seat.

– Have you heard about the census?

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The unique advantage of the population and housing census — which is ideally completed once every ten years — is that it represents the entire statistical universe, down to the smallest geographical units. For purposes that require data at particular levels of aggregation, such as municipalities, or even city neighbourhoods, the census has no match.

The census is a critical planning tool, helping policymakers plan for the future in terms of schools, clinics and hospitals, roads, urban infrastructure and more. It can measure fertility, mortality and spatial distribution, so as to predict and plan for demographic trends. It can uncover gender disparities in employment, literacy, age of marriage and assets. It can reveal the number of people with disabilities and orphans by area. It also can map out the types of dwellings, sources of drinking water, access to telecommunications and patterns of energy use, among other things.

Census data can contribute to poverty reduction through identification of beneficiaries and gaps in services, as well as by the monitoring of MDGs and other development targets. It can empower local communities by giving them access to local data. And it can encourage participation in local decision-making by increasing knowledge of local needs and ensuring representation based on accurate numbers. Because so much hinges on the data numbers, the process can become highly charged and require careful monitoring.

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The 2010 international round of population and housing census

The current census round – 2010 – refers to censuses that take place from 2006-2015. The international community has pledged to support low-income developing countries carry out this complex undertaking. UNFPA's Executive Director has created a Special Initiative on Census to spearhead the Fund's efforts in supporting developing and low-income countries' to conduct their 2010 censuses. This intensified support is aimed to ensure that:

  • No country fails to carry out a population and housing census during the 2010 census round due to financial constrains or to lack of technical capacity

  • Data generated from the 2010 census round are widely disseminated and extensively used for the preparation of development plans and programmes, as well as for their monitoring and evaluation

  • UNFPA is a leading and reliable partner in providing technical support to countries during the 2010 cycle of censuses. The Fund's procurement branch can assist countries in getting specific goods and services for a successful census operation. 

Assisting countries in special circumstances

UNFPA has taken a prominent role in supporting several countries undertaking their first census in post-conflict situations or those that required technical assistance or support for other reasons. In each of these countries, UNFPA funded a Resident Chief Technical Adviser to ensure the success of the census operations.

Because of the sensitive social  and political factors that are often in play, this may require monitoring by international observers to ensure that the results are credible and widely accepted. The Fund's support for the completion of Sudan's national census in 2008 helped facilitate the gathering of data from the north and south, a requirement of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. UNFPA also provided technical and financial support for Nigeria's 2006 census, the first in 15 years. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Kosovo are relying assistance from UNFPA when they conduct the census in 2011.

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