23 July 2001
Symposium on Global Review of 2000 Round of
Population and Housing Censuses:
Mid-Decade Assessment and Future Prospects
Department of Economic and Social Affairs
United Nations Secretariat
New York, 7-10 August 2001
Statement from Guyana *
Lennox Benjamin **
1. Guyana is the only English-speaking country on the mainland of South America; it has an area of approximately 215,000 square kilometres. A population count of 723,800 was recorded at the last census in 1991. Guyana sits on the northern shoulder of the South American continent and is bordered on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the south by Brazil, on the east by Suriname, and on the west by Venezuela and Brazil. Guyana has a history of census taking dating back to 1844, interrupted by the Second World War. The first post-war census was held in 1946, and subsequent censuses were held in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1991. Importantly, Guyana is a member of Caricom, and subscribed to and participated in the regional approach to the execution of the last two censuses under the aegis of the Caricom Secretariat. Guyana welcomes the initiative of the United Nations Statistics Division in organizing this symposium, which for Guyana comes at a most opportune time as it prepares for a census in 2002. Guyana is again participating in the regional approach. The decision to shift from the expected census year of 2001 to 2002 was based on the “rule of thumb” that it is in the best interest of all to avoid holding a census in a national election year. Guyana’s national election was held in March 2001.
2. Issue 1: The issue of identifying and building a consensus among stakeholders is one of the first issues that engages Guyana in its census preparations. Important in our approach has been the awareness that the bureau of statistics or the central statistical office does not “own” the census but only guides, coordinates and manages this massive project. The contribution of all parties is seen as central to success, so care has been taken in finalizing the proposal for a census committee to ensure that it is not overrepresented by government agencies, but rather reflects the fabric of civil society. To be invited are non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose influence has grown over the past decade, the private sector, organizations representing women’s affairs and the media, among others, to serve alongside core government agencies and the Bureau of Statistics on the committee.
3. Attention is being paid to ensure that the committee would not be unwieldy in numbers with the potential to delay decisions, by limiting the number of agencies invited to serve to approximately 15. Essentially, the role of the Bureau is to do the groundwork for the committee in preparing a first-draft questionnaire for the committee’s consideration, and then to consider any new suggestions for topic inclusions. The Bureau will assess the demand for inclusion by determining whether requests have been or can be met in subject-matter surveys. New areas of enquiry will have a greater chance of consideration if the Bureau can be convinced that they will not compromise the length of the questionnaire and cause respondent fatigue.
4. The Bureau’s expectation of the “reasonable” length of the questionnaire and the danger point of respondent fatigue comes from its experience of executing continuous surveys in the field during intercensal years.
5. Issues 2–4: Wherever possible, a central statistical office must seek to develop existing data sources, at government and other agencies, as network sources for the collection of population and social statistics. It must be remembered that the prime role of a central statistical office is to establish and manage a national statistical system, and not necessarily to smother the development of other possible underdeveloped data sources and replace it by its own operations at the centre. Only where there is a clear determination of absence of capacity and data at other agencies should a central statistical office start to organize to take over such data capture, and earmark such data gaps as potential items for inclusion in the census questionnaire. The reality of serious lobbying that has to be done with governments for release of funds to develop the data-capture branches of its myriad agencies must be acknowledged as a major constraint.
6. However, even with the potential of disaggregated or dispersed data collection, such activities must never be considered as substitutes for the census, which effectively serves as the quality and coverage check of the very disaggregated data-collection system. It is also the singular activity which can permit a quality check of historical data and which will allow periodic stocktaking and simultaneously permit a measure of change.
7. Because of the massive logistical nature of the census operation, it has to be approached in a manner akin to a military operation. There is the age-old adage that armies prepare to fight the last war. There is a moral here for census operations as the incorrect or inadequate use of technology from earlier censuses can hurt a census. Guyana’s experience of having to train data-entry staff in the use of software programs for data entry and analysis, and the subsequent gap of approximately four years between completion of field operations and availability of results would be untenable for this census round. The Bureau was not responsible for the execution of the last census, and the shortfalls referred to above emphasize the importance of allowing the central statistical organization to take charge of all aspects of a census, including choice of technology, as is their mandate by law, in most cases.
8. The greatest possible impact on government and society is made when census results are brought out within a few months of leaving the field. Awareness of advances in technology suggests that the movement to image-scanning technology will serve the multiple purposes of speedy processing of census results and multiple applications within the statistical office long after the census. Although costs may be prohibitive, the clear response is that there is a fundamental difference between incurring costs and committing funds for investment and capacity-building. Equipment for the census falls under the latter category.
9. The Bureau has maintained census-related activities during the intercensal period by establishing a survey unit, developing a cadre of field supervisors and engaging in a continuous programme of surveys utilizing the census frame. Census materials therefore become the tools of the surveys unit and should be located therein, but because of their value the ideal is to make electronic copies and store them offsite. Ongoing survey activities more importantly allow an ongoing assessment of the quality of maps, whether they are outdated and the comprehensive planning needed to update them, subject to funds, in intercensal years. The clear realization for the Bureau is that mapping updates must be represented to the government as a national priority and not just a priority of a central statistical organization. Further, when the maps are old, 20 years or more, it becomes increasingly difficult to digitize them, the inaccuracy of coordinates being just one problem.
10. Finally, when a central statistical organization has a small staff, the holding of a post-enumeration survey (PES) can be more of a hindrance than an asset. It is best that all efforts be channeled to field supervision and rigorous training in concepts and definitions as a means of ensuring high quality in the field.