Symposium 2001/05E

18 July 2001


                                                                                                           English and French



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







Organization and financing of population censuses in sub-Saharan Africa: problems and prospects *

Lamine DIOP **





Summary. 1

A. Introduction. 2

B. Reasons for the high cost of censuses. 2

C. Difficulties encountered in the funding of censuses. 2

D. Possible solutions. 3

E. Conclusion. 4


Organization and Financing of Population Censuses in Sub-Saharan Africa: Problems and Prospects


Solutions to census funding problems have been discussed at many international meetings, and a number of strategies have been suggested. First, statisticians and demographers must work to raise the level of awareness about the importance of the population census data for all national programmes. Second, the census must be an integrated part of the country’s statistical activities, rather than a special, limited activity. Some tasks, such as mapping, should be ongoing and continuous. Third, census operations must be better planned, with particular attention to the post-enumeration phase. Fourth, sharing of resources and personnel should be explored to help reduce costs. Fifth, census officials should resist pressures to make questionnaires more detailed. Some data should be collected in surveys rather than in the census. And finally, every effort should be made to use new technologies, especially in census mapping, data capture, computer processing and dissemination.


Censuses are complex and expensive enterprises requiring careful planning and the mobilization of numerous people and resources. All inhabited areas in the country must be visited, and the entire population must be enumerated in a limited period of time. In sub-Saharan Africa, additional factors add to the cost of a census. They include incomplete land registry, an illiterate population, incomplete civil registration, communication and infrastructure difficulties, a mobile population, high rates of population growth, inadequate census planning and failure to take advantage of acquired technical know-how. Moreover, experience gained from earlier censuses is often unavailable or disregarded, so planning takes place as if a census had never been conducted.


The current census-funding crisis in sub-Saharan Africa has been caused by the low level of funding allocated by countries for their censuses and the shrinking contributions from bilateral and multilateral donors. Structural adjustment programmes put into place to deal with financial and economic crises in the 1980s have left little room in budgets for expensive statistical programmes. At the same time, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has shifted its priorities from such issues as censuses to reproductive health and the relationship between population and development. Bilateral donors have tended to offer loans instead of grants for census taking, which many countries cannot afford to accept. Some national statistical offices have begun their censuses with no assurance that they would be able to continue the work. After enumeration was completed, census questionnaires could be held for months until money was available for data processing. The delays increased the cost of the census while making the data less timely and less useful. In addition, data users have requested increasingly detailed census questionnaires, which adds to the processing time and costs.


A. Introduction

1.                  Under the African Census Programme established by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and with significant technical and financial assistance from the United Nations system, in particular the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a large number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa conducted their first population censuses in the 1970s. An even larger number of countries participated in global census programmes in the 1980s and 1990s. Over the three decades, an impressive volume of population data was collected, and expertise in the collection, processing and analysis of such data was built up in national statistical institutes.

2.                  In recent years, the organization of population censuses has increasingly been encountering financial difficulties, one of the consequences of which has been an increase in the interval (theoretically 10 years) between censuses.

3.                  The purpose of this paper is to make some suggestions that might help solve the problem of the funding of population censuses in sub-Saharan Africa.

B. Reasons for the high cost of censuses

4.                  Organizing a population census is a complex operation requiring the general mobilization of all the actors concerned: statisticians and demographers, political and administrative authorities, donors and the population as a whole. Its planning therefore requires a great deal of care. A census is also a costly operation because of its exhaustiveness: all the inhabited places in a country must be visited and numerous data must be collected for the entire population in a limited period of time.

5.                  In the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the following specific factors help to raise the costs of censuses:

·              Incomplete land registry coverage and lack of regular updates of the registry;

·              High illiteracy rates;

·              Gaps in the civil registration system;

·              Communication difficulties, in particular poor road conditions;

·              Extensive population movements, especially as a result of the rural exodus;

·              Continuing high rates of population growth;

·              Inadequate planning of census operations; and

·              Failure to take advantage of acquired technical know-how.

6.                  Significant progress can be seen in most of the above areas, but a major handicap remains: poor planning of census operations, characterized by the lack of importance given to computer processing of census data and to analysis and dissemination of the results. This causes lengthy delays, increases the overall cost of the census and results in low levels of use of the data produced.

7.                  Furthermore, high turnover of supervisory staff and poor organization in most national statistical institutes mean that advantage is rarely taken of acquired expertise. Often, when a population census is being prepared, the authorities act as if this was the country’s first census. It may even happen that basic data from the preceding census are no longer available and that nothing remains of prior mapping work.

C. Difficulties encountered in the funding of censuses

8.                  As indicated in the introduction, it is becoming increasingly difficult in most sub-Saharan African countries to secure funding for population censuses.

The main reasons are the following:

·              The low level of funding which States allocate to censuses

The structural adjustment programmes put in place to combat the economic and financial crisis which began in the 1980s in most countries leave little room in State budgets for funding costly statistical operations.

·              The relative disengagement of bilateral and multilateral donors

During the 1970s and 1980s, the United Nations Population Fund allocated significant sums to the funding of censuses and population surveys in sub-Saharan Africa. In some countries, the first ever population census was funded essentially by UNFPA, with a modest contribution from the government. After emphasizing the collection of demographic data in the 1970s, UNFPA shifted its priorities in the 1980s, turning most of its attention to reproductive health, the relationship between population and development, and awareness-raising on those issues. At the same time, it had to take into account the constraints imposed by its donors. All this brought about a decline in the share of its funding earmarked for census operations.

9.                  The priorities of certain bilateral donors also changed during this period. While most of the funds made available by donors in the 1970s were in the form of grants, some countries were subsequently forced to use loans to finance their censuses. Since these loans form part of broader development programmes, it is not always easy to use them because of the conditions attached to the programmes.

10.              In order to secure funding for censuses, the governments of sub-Saharan African countries sometimes held donor round tables. These were not always successful, with some census operations failing to obtain funding.

11.                 In these circumstances, some national statistical institutes had to begin operations, particularly mapping operations, without the assurance that they would have the necessary funding to continue their work. Their main aim was to enumerate the population, even if that meant holding on to the completed questionnaires for months afterwards until additional financing was obtained. Lastly, it should be mentioned that, under pressure from users, census questionnaires are becoming increasingly detailed, which means that they take longer to process, entailing an increase in census costs.

D. Possible solutions

12.              The difficulties of funding population censuses in sub-Saharan Africa have been discussed at various levels both within and outside Africa.

13.              At its fourth meeting, held in Bamako in November 1998, the Executive Committee of AFRISTAT (Observatoire Economique et Statistique d’Afrique) held a special session on the subject with the participation of the director-general of France’s National Institute of Economic and Statistical Information. More recently, the issue was addressed in a working group of the Paris 21 Consortium. It is also being discussed in other forums, for instance in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for the countries of southern Africa.

14.              It is true that, unless satisfactory solutions are found, some sub-Saharan African countries may find it impossible to organize further population censuses. Strategies must therefore be devised to meet the increasing costs of conducting population censuses in Africa. Such strategies could take into account the following elements:

              1.       Awareness raising on the need to continue conducting censuses

Emphasis on good governance, decentralization policies and anti-poverty strategies all require the availability of demographic data at detailed geographical levels that only a population census can provide.

Given the rudimentary nature of the civil registration system in sub-Saharan Africa, conducting population censuses at regular intervals (10 years) remains essential. Accordingly, statisticians and demographers must work at the task of raising the awareness of national political authorities and donors. The development of strategic frameworks for combating poverty in support of the debt-reduction initiative offers an opportunity for sound planning of statistical operations and their financing.

              2.       Better integration of censuses in the activities of national statistical


The organization of population censuses must be an integral part of the activities of national statistical institutes. It cannot go on being considered a special, limited activity despite its scope and complexity. Some activities, such as mapping, should be an ongoing task, with regular updating of maps through the use of new technologies.

              3.       Better planning of census operations

All the activities which contribute to the success of a census must be identified at the outset and their execution programmed and their costs calculated. Special attention must be paid to the post-enumeration phase: data capture, tabulation, analysis and dissemination.

              4.       Effective mobilization and rational use of available resources

The purchase of new equipment, particularly vehicles, takes up a great deal of the budget for a census. During the enumeration period, which requires maximum mobilization of human and material resources, it should be possible to use the existing vehicle fleet of public services and local authorities. As for human resources, using teachers, who are usually well distributed throughout the national territory, should help to reduce costs.

              5.       Preparation of questionnaires

Population census officials should resist pressures to make questionnaires more detailed. Some data can be collected in greater detail and with greater precision in post-census surveys. Special attention should be paid to the design of the questionnaire, in order to facilitate keyboarding of the data collected during enumeration.

              6.       Use of new technologies

New technologies should be used in every possible area, particularly census mapping, data capture, computer processing and dissemination.

E. Conclusion

15.              This paper has attempted to identify the factors which raise the costs of population censuses in sub-Saharan Africa and to make some suggestions for developing strategies to reduce those costs. As in other areas of statistics, effective awareness-raising, good organization, rigorous planning of operations and optimum use of new technologies will help make censuses less difficult to finance.


*       This document was reproduced without formal editing.

**     AFRISTAT, Mali.  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.