6 August 2001


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Symposium on Global Review of 2000 Round of

Population and Housing Censuses:

Mid-Decade Assessment and Future Prospects

Statistics Division

Department of Economic and Social Affairs

United Nations Secretariat

New York, 7-10 August 2001












Population and Housing Censuses

A Funding Crisis?*


Richard Leete**




Summary. 3

A. Introduction. 4

B. Value of censuses. 4

C. 2000 round of censuses. 4

D. Rising costs of censuses and cost-saving strategies. 5

E. International support for censuses. 6

F. Conclusion. 7

References. 8


Population and Housing Censuses: A Funding Crisis?


Organizations that provide funding support have long recognized the important role played by censuses in providing basic information for development planning and policy-making. In some cases outside sources have supported entire censuses, particularly in countries that are conducting their first census, while in others they provided technical assistance and cooperation. The 2000 round of censuses has been severely affected by funding constraints, especially in the least developed countries, forcing some countries to delay their censuses well beyond the recommended ten-year interval.


Some countries did not get funding until late in the census-planning process, which forced compromises in data collection, evaluation, processing and dissemination. Funding delays almost always affect the range and quality of census results. The international community recognizes that many countries lack the financial and human resource capacity to conduct censuses without technical assistance. In addition, some countries face collapses in institutional infrastructures and competing demands on resources, making censuses take a lower priority. The Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) called for the United Nations and donors to strengthen the capacity of developing countries, particularly the least developed countries and those with economies in transition, to undertake regular censuses and surveys. But rising costs and donor fatigue have led to specific gaps in census funding.


The long interval between censuses means that many countries have no continuity in census taking and must begin planning for each census with new staff and limited infrastructure. At the same time, rapid developments in computer technology require expertise and skills that may not be available in the country. The United Nations has provided a series of manuals, handbooks and software to familiarize statistical offices with new developments and techniques. Funds such as UNFPA work with governments and donor agencies to organize successful censuses and coordinate technical, financial and logistical support. A recent census, carried out in Cambodia in 1998, illustrates some of the key factors for census success. Cambodia had not conducted a census since 1962, and the country had difficult political conditions, weak communications and infrastructure and an unskilled population from which to recruit enumerators and other census workers. However, Cambodia made a strong commitment to the census at all levels of government; donors collaborated with the government; and a publicity campaign increased awareness and gained support for the census among the public. Not only have the census results provided important data for national goals, but the census experience helped to build capacity in the Cambodian statistics office for further data-collection efforts.


Three activities account for most of the cost of census operations: producing census maps, enumerating the population and data capture, processing, analysis and dissemination. Opportunities for cost savings exist in all operations. For example, common maps used by many government departments can spread cartographic costs among many users; census sampling can reduce census enumeration and processing costs; and appropriate computer technology can reduce the cost of data processing. Other ways of saving money include sharing experiences between countries and sharing some census activities among groups of neighbouring countries with similar data needs. Much can be learned from the current round of censuses, and it is important to assess funding problems, study ways of reducing costs, find new sources of support and advocate increased support for censuses from other government departments.


A. Introduction

1.                  For more than three decades UNFPA, working in multiple partnerships, has played a leadership role in supporting population and housing censuses in developing and transition countries. Many countries across all continents would have been unable to conduct censuses without technical assistance provided by the Fund. This ranges from support for entire censuses, particularly in countries conducting a first modern census, to highly technical elements of census capacity-building in other countries.In many countries, censuses have provided the only stocktaking of the population and its characteristics. Without census information, evidence-based population and development planning would not have been possible.


2.                  Population censuses are essential for policy and planning purposes. Censuses provide the foundation for good governance and for measuring development progress. They should be held every 10 years as part of a countryís strategy for sequenced and integrated information. Funding constraints have seriously affected the 2000 census round, especially in least developed countries: several countries have postponed censuses or are experiencing funding shortages.


3.                  A lack of data is seriously hampering policy-making and planning across a broad range of sectors in many countries, and the measurement of progress towards national and international development goals. Developing countries are at differing levels of statistical capability, and this is reflected in the quantity and quality of data they produce. Several lack financial resources and cannot even afford basic computer equipment and software. Limited human resource capacities, especially technical and managerial, compound institutional weaknesses.


4.                  The high and growing cost of censuses, coupled with shrinking public-sector budgets in many developing countries, has put a serious question mark over their future. Cutbacks in funding for international development assistance, which in the past has been a major source of funding for censuses, have exacerbated the situation. This paper makes the case for ensuring adequate and timely support for censuses in developing and transition countries that lack sufficient technical and financial resources. It makes proposals for helping to avert a funding crisis in the next round of censuses.


B. Value of censuses

5.                  Population-based data and indicators are crucial for national and subnational policies and plans, for development frameworks, such as the United Nations Common Country Assessment (CCAs) and the World Bank/ International Monetary Fundís (WB/IMF) Poverty Reduction Strategies Papers (PRSPs), for results-based management, and for tracking progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. Censuses provide a unique data source for meeting a good proportion of these needs. If combined with sample surveys, they can provide data for most of them.


6.                  A census is the primary source of information about the number and characteristics of the population. Its strengths and distinctiveness arise from completeness of coverage; continuity of statistics from census to census; possibilities of interrelating various characteristics of the population and households; and the details it provides about individuals in local areas and population subgroups. No other data source meets these needs. And no other data source allows for such a comprehensive gender analysis of population-based indicators. A census also provides the baseline for population and related functional projections that are crucial for sectoral planning.Censuses can provide for the comparability of basic development indicators between countries, provided that, of course, international definitions and classifications are used.


7.                  Data gaps are inevitable without a recent census.Surveys will be using outdated sampling frames with the likelihood that they will produce seriously biased estimates. Administrative boundaries will be incorrectly drawn. National and sectoral planning and related decision-making will be based on outdated and unreliable statistics. Even basic information on population size and age composition will be unavailable or unreliable. And the lack of basic population data will lead to serious policy and resource allocation distortions.


8.                  Population censuses based on household registers are viable for countries with such registers, as in some European countries, for example. But the costs of establishing and maintaining household registers are such that they preclude the use of this option in developing countries for the foreseeable future.

C. 2000 round of censuses

9.                  At the request of the United Nations Statistical Commission, ECOSOC, in resolution 1995/7, recommended that all member States carry out population censuses during the period 1995-2004. More than midway through this period, it is apparent that the 2000 round of censuses is comparing unfavourably with the 1990 round.


10.              Several countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have postponed their censuses thereby increasing the interval of time since the previous census to more than 10 years (Box 1). Other countries have secured funding at a very late stage in their census preparations, thereby forcing compromises in decision-making, while others are experiencing funding gaps that are slowing post-enumeration activities and curtailingplans for the dissemination of census results. Funding delays and uncertainty almost inevitably lead to delays in data processing and affect the range and quality of census results.


Box 1. Sub-Saharan African countries: censuses with intervals exceeding 10 years


Census interval 11 to 12 years (actualor expected)

Burkina Faso; Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda


Census interval 13 + years (actualor expected)

Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone and United Republic of Tanzania


11.              Sometimes governments tend to allocate unrealistic amounts for censuses with the expectation that international assistance will provide the balance.Many countries organize donorsí meetings for this purpose, and the outcome is not always successful. Meanwhile the census time-schedule continues to move forward.Experience shows that governments and donor agencies often allocate funds just prior to the actual enumeration. This can lead to compromises in the decision-making process and impact on the quality of census operations. Allocations of the necessary resources for censuses should be made well in advance of the census date.††††


12.              The international community recognizes that many developing countries lack the financial and human resource capacity to conduct censuses without at least some technical assistance. Even the countries with economies in transition face constraints in carrying out censuses due, for example, to collapses in institutional infrastructures and an inability to give priority to censuses amid competing demands on resources. Thus the recommendations of the 1999 United Nations Special Session of the General Assembly on the five-year review and appraisal of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) called for the United Nations and donors to strengthen the capacity of developing countries, particularly the least developed countries and those with economies in transition, to undertake censuses and surveys on a regular basis. But with rising costs of censuses there appears to be some donor fatigue in meeting gaps in census funding.


13.              Almost all developing countries have had some experience in census taking during the past several decades. But the long length of time between censuses often means that planning for a forthcoming census is not based on previous experiences. It also results in a turnover of experienced staff.Yet new developments and accumulated experiences in census operations and state-of-the-art microcomputer technology must be exploited to minimize cost and maximize the utility of the information.


14.              The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) has helped create a strong normative basis for census taking through its manuals, handbooks and, with the United States Census Bureau, census software. For example, the new revision of the Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, (United Nations, 1998) provides countries with guidance on the use of new developments and techniques, as well as accumulated knowledge and experiences of census operations. Box 2 outlines a successfully organized census with well-coordinated international collaboration led by UNFPA.



Box 2. Ingredients of Cambodiaís successful 1998 population census


In 1998 Cambodia held its first population census since 1962. Despite the difficult political conditions prevailing at that time, the relatively weak state of communications, infrastructure and the need to mobilize and train a field force of some 25,000 enumerators and 8,000 supervisors from a low-skill base, the census was a remarkable success. Key contributing factors were:


†††† Strong commitment at all levels of government;

††† Strong collaboration and coordination between the government, donors and United Nations organizations, led by UNFPA, in the provision of technical, financial and logistical support;


††† A well-targeted census advocacy campaign that increased awareness and gained widespread support for the census at all leadership levels; and


         Dissemination of positive messages about the census to the Cambodian people through mass media campaigns.


††††††† The census results provide important population, social and economic data for the preparation of the national development plan and serve as a baseline for monitoring the international development goals. The census experience also helped to build capacity of the national census and statistical office in, inter alia, technical and managerial skills and with the provision of data-processing equipment.



D. Rising costs of censuses and cost-saving strategies

15.              Censuses are the largest, most elaborate and costliest data-collection activity that statistical offices undertake, and costs are rising. In many countries a census accounts for around 10-15 per cent of the budget of the statistical office over an entire decade. One factor contributing to the increase in census costs in developing countries is relatively high population growth. In many, annual population growth exceeds 2 per cent per annum, implying an increase in population size of at least one third over a normal 10-year census period. Another is that labour-saving and time-reducing technology comes with a hefty price tag. Even in industrialized countries, per capita census costs are rising, despite the use of mail-out and mail-back questionnaires, sophisticated computer data-processing technology and relatively low population growth. For example, the United States population census in 2000 is estimated to have cost $4.5 billion, or $16 per head, compared with a figure of around $10 per head in 1990 (Kent, 2001).


16.              Rising costs of censuses, coupled with a lack of detailed data about census costs, led the United Nations in its recommendations for population and housing censuses, to emphasize the need for countries to keep account of the cost of each census activity. Summary cost indicators, such as total census cost per capita, are subject to limitations which make it difficult to say that one census is more or less expensive than another. They do not take account of variations in the quality, quantity and timeliness of census results.


17.              Censuses need to be more cost-effective. But they will remain costly despite the use of modern relatively low-cost computer technology. There is a fine balance between keeping census costs to a minimum and preserving the unique advantages of a census. UNFPA has found that, unless sufficient resources are available at each stage of the census, the quality of the entire census can be jeopardized. Three activities tend to take up the bulk of census operations costs: census maps, population enumeration and data capture, processing, analysis and dissemination.


18.              Accurate census maps provide the basis for a variety of census operations, including setting enumerator assignments, ensuring completeness of coverage, estimating travel time and costs, and establishing field offices. The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), with ground-truthing, can lead to significant cost savings in the determination of enumeration areas. Further, the continuous and multiple use of maps by and across different government departments can help spread cartographic costs.


19.              Population enumeration is the most expensive census operation.Each individual and living quarter in a country must be enumerated within a short period of time.Enumeration costs depend upon factors such as method of enumeration; the source of supply of enumerators and the number of questions asked in the census questionnaire. Sampling can reduce census enumeration and processing costs and improve the quality of information. Sampling at enumeration reduces fieldwork, training and processing costs in the main census, and enhances data quality of the additional information collected from a subsample of households. However, considerable care needs to be taken in sample selection and implementation to avoid biases in the results.


20.              The third expensive census operation is data capture, processing, analysis and dissemination. Continued advances in computer systems technology, such as electronic scanning of marks and characters, have greatly increased the speed and reliability in producing and disseminating tabulations, making automation the standard method of processing. However, modern high-level data-processing technology, and the skills to handle it, are frequently in short supply in developing countries. And it is by no means self-evident that in labour-surplus situations such technology should necessarily be chosen to replace personal computers. Although it avoids human transcription errors, such as data mis-reading or mis-punching, the technology may have limited application in the years following a census. By contrast, a large number of personal computers and related equipment brought to facilitate census data processing may help permanently upgrade institutional capacity.


21.              The time is ripe to consider cost-saving strategies beyond census sampling. Examples include coordinating international census data requirements; sharing of experiences between countries and sharing of selected census activities among groups of neighbouring countries with similar data needs. This might include having a common census year, using absolute minimum core questionnaires and sharing of questionnaires, manuals, training, data processing, analysis and dissemination activities. UNFPA has supported the adoption of these strategies for countries in the Pacific region, Central Asian countries, and parts of Africa since 1999 through the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Its success requires strong political commitment from countries. It also requires considerable technical support from the international donor community. UNFPA, in collaboration with other partners, has supported a number of workshops to promote this strategy.

E. International support for censuses

22.              Technical cooperation and assistance from multilateral agencies, led by UNFPA, and from bilateral donors, have played a major role in the success of past censuses. Given the limited budgets available to many statistical offices and their limited capacity, there is a continuing need for such cooperation and assistance, particularly in the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. New sources of funding will need to be tapped, including greater involvement of foundations and the private sector. Yet from both a supply and a demand perspective, census data are largely a public good. So for the foreseeable future international technical, and to a limited extent financial, assistance for census taking will be required to complement national inputs.


23.              For more than three decades UNFPA has played a leadership role in supporting census programmes in developing and transition countries. The Fund has also been prominent in helping to mobilize support for censuses in post-conflict situations where previous census data may no longer be relevantóas, for example, in Kosovo. Many countries would have been unable to conduct censuses without such assistance.However, with competing demands on its limited resources, coupled with reductions in core income over the past five years, supporting countriesí census-taking activities has become ever more difficult. The Fundís policy has been to try to provide support mainly to countries taking their first or second census. But this is insufficient in many developing and transition continues where there is a lack of resources and capacity. A particular problem facing transition countries is the lack of familiarity with international standards.


24.              UNFPA continues to play a pivotal role in helping to mobilize resources for censuses in most developing countries, in conjunction with multiple partnerships, donors and technical assistance organizations, such as the PARIS 21, European Union, USAID, the World Bank and others. The Fund also plays a key role in the six-monthly meetings of the Interagency Census Coordinating Committee (ICCC) for Sub-Saharan Africa attended by representatives from UNFPA, UNSD, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the US Census Bureau, CIDA (Canada) and the World Bank.


25.              Donors are conscious of the critical need for census data for many purposes and of the consequences of not having such data (UNFPA, 2000). Yet there is sometimes donor fatigue with the idea of having to support yet another census, particularly when the donor support has been given to a particular country for several previous censuses. The amounts requested from donors are relatively large in relation to their budgets for particular countries. Often requests to donors for support for their censuses are received late and the budget is overly ambitious. Developing countries need the requisite skills to negotiate with, and coordinate, a large number of donors. They also need to make an early start in trying to bridge the budget gap between the resources available from the government and total estimated census costs.

26.              There is a need to redefine negotiating positions whereby (1) governments ask for too much money at the beginning; (2) donors are reluctant to commit before the size of the government commitment is known; (each side waits for the other) and (3) donors are reluctant to commit funds for necessary pre-enumeration preparatory work for fear it will be wasted. Moreover, donor guidelines on what they are prepared to fund can give rise to costing distortions and inefficiencies. Thus some donors will support the purchase of expensive technology but not meet local costs of a census.


27.              Technical cooperation and assistance from international agencies and the donor community have played a major role in the success of past censuses. There will be a continuing need by many countries, particularly the poorest countries, for such assistance in future censuses. Pooling of international agency and donor resources could be a cost-effective strategy for meeting the diverse demands expected in these censuses.

F. Conclusion

28.              Censuses will continue to be a unique source of data for many planning purposes. In order to avert a funding crisis and ensure their future stability there is a need to systematically:


        Assess funding problems that have arisen in the current census round, from the perspectives of developing countries and donors;


        Conduct research into census costs and operational methods to determine what practical measures can be taken to reduce costs and how to maximize the timely dissemination and use of census results;


        Assist countries in advocating the need for conducting regular censuses and securing the necessary funding within countries and from the donor community. Much more needs to be done by line ministries to support the efforts of national statistical offices in making the case to finance ministries for supporting national censuses;


        Similarly, international agencies who use national census data for a variety of purposes could help to support the case of UNFPA to convince bilateral and multilateral donors to provide support for censuses.


29.              UNFPA, working in partnerships with others and building on comparative advantages, will continue to play a leadership role in support of these aims.




Kent, Mary, et al. (2001). First Glimpses from the 2000 U.S. Census, Population Bulletin, vol. 57, No. 2. Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau.


United Nations (1998). Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses. Revision 1. Statistical Papers, Series M, No. 67/Rev. 1. Sales No. E.98.XVII.8.


United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2000). Report of the Joint Interagency Coordinating Committee on Censuses for sub-Saharan Africa and PARIS 21 Task Force Meetings. Eurostat, Luxembourg, 26-27 October 2000.



*†††††† This document was reproduced without formal editing.

** ††† United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), New York. The views expressed in the paper are those of the author and do not imply the expression of any opinion on the part of the United Nations Secretariat.