Symposium 2001/19

24 September 2001


                                                                                                           English only


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












Maintaining census-related activities during the

intercensal period: selected national experiences*

Jason O. Onsembe **





A. Introduction. 1

B. Implementation of the 2000 round of censuses. 1

C. Intercensal activities in Sub-Saharan Africa. 2

D. Constraints, problems and challenges. 3

E. Contribution of the intercensal programme to the improvement of census work. 5

F. Prospects for future intercensal programmes. 6

G. Conclusions and recommendations. 7

References. 8


A. Introduction


1.                  Few countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have participated in the ongoing 2000 census round (1995-2004), while many more are at different stages of census preparatory work.  During the intercensal periods, almost all countries have undertaken various types of intercensal activities, including collection and analysis of population-related data.


2.                  This paper highlights experiences, constraints and challenges that have characterized censuses and intercensal activities in selected countries in the subregion.  Also, obstacles related to the use of the intercensal programme for improving efficiency and quality of censuses are discussed. Lastly, some recommendations for the future are presented.


B. Implementation of the 2000 round of censuses


3.                  In sub-Saharan Africa, population censuses are firmly established as the main source of demographic and socio-economic data and also for the provision of a viable sampling frame for sample surveys.  Although expectations are that censuses should be undertaken on a decennial basis, it has been observed that few countries maintain the 10-year intercensal periods.  Some countries have delayed their censuses by as much as six years, and the long delays have translated into longer intercensal periods.  Table 1 gives the status of implementing the 2000 round of censuses.


4.                  In the 1990 census round (1985-1994) and the 2000 census round (1995-2004), governments in the region have shown increasing commitment to undertaking censuses and have consequently been providing more and more financial resources to census programmes.  But in most cases, this has proved to be inadequate and the national statistics offices had to look elsewhere to fill the resource gaps.  In the past, countries received financial, technical and material support from multilateral sources, mainly, UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), and the World Bank, as well as from bilateral donors including USAID (United States Agency for International Development), DFID (Department for International Development), SIDA (Swedish International Development Authority) and CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). Experience, however, indicates that resources from the main donors, particularly UNFPA and UNDP, have been declining over the years. UNFPA, for example, has shifted its priorities to other equally important population issues, including reproductive health.  Thus, a number of countries, except Nigeria, have faced and are still facing financial problems. In particular, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania had to postpone their censuses due to financial problems.  There has been repeated postponement of the Tanzanian census, which was scheduled for 1998.  Even after holding five-fund raising meetings with donors, there is still a financial gap of about US$16 million. Other conditions, which have been adverse to smooth implementation of census programmes, include conflict and civil wars in the region. The censuses for Liberia and Sierra Leone could not be undertaken as planned due to civil wars, and the census of Eritrea was postponed from 2000 to 2002 because of the war with Ethiopia.

Table 1: Status of implementing the 2000 round of censuses


Census Round (1990)

Census Round


Actual/planned date






Date likely to be maintained





Date likely to be maintained






United Republic of Tanzania




More than before, date likely to be maintained





Funding problem not solved





Date likely to be maintained





Date not confirmed

Central African Republic




Date not confirmed





Date not confirmed





Date likely to be maintained










Date might be changed

Sierra Leone




Date likely to be maintained

* Countries in Eastern and Anglophone West Africa,


C. Intercensal activities in Sub-Saharan Africa


5.                  During the intercensal period, which, as indicated above, may be more than 10 years, countries in the subregion have always undertaken a range of intercensal activities. The trend has been for countries to use the intercensal period for three main purposes: to complete activities related to the preceding census; to initiate preparations for the next census and to undertake data collection and analysis.


1. Finalizing activities of the previous census


6.                  Experience indicates that census activities do not end with the release of basic results.  Thus, the intercensal period is used for finalizing in-depth analysis; responding to various data users’ needs; completing the printing, publication and dissemination of results; updating and filing enumeration area (EA) cartographic maps and documenting census activities and lessons learned.


2. Initiating preparations for the next census


a. Establishment of census offices


7.                  Experience indicates that this can take three forms:


·        A permanent census office, which operates at all times during the census period as well as during the intercensal period.  In Nigeria, for example, the government has established a census commission, which operates independently from the Federal Statistics Office.  There is a chairman of the commission, a high-ranking census official, and several directors, each heading a specific technical area of census taking.  The commission reports directly to the office of the president. 


·        Permanent divisions/sections for the census, usually within the general organizational framework of the national statistics office. Thus, these are not usually independent from mainstream statistical activities.  The census office is deemed permanent because it is operational during the census period as well as during the intercensal period.  In some countries—for example, Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania—census offices remain low-key, undertaking a number of tasks, including in-depth analysis of census data, production of census atlases and updating of cartographic EA maps. During the census period, the offices are strengthened through staff transfers from other government departments.   


·        Temporary census offices, which are created with a proclamation and are functional only during the census period as, for example, Burundi, Eritrea, Liberia and Rwanda. During the intercensal period, all staff and equipment are transferred to other sections in the national statistics offices and no activity related to the census takes place. 


8.                  Establishing permanent offices, i.e., the first two scenarios above, ensures continuation of census work and contributes to capability-building.  Such an arrangement facilitates census preparatory work and hence increases efficiency of the census taking.  The system has proved an effective vehicle for continuation of post-censal work.  On the other hand, all other arrangements, which are temporary, do not establish that continuity and are subject to loss of skilled personnel; movement of equipment to other sections of the national statistics office and loss of institutional memory.


b. Undertaking census evaluation


9.                  Some countries have used the census period to conduct census evaluation through a post-enumeration survey (PES).  Ghana and Kenya conducted PES’s soon after the 1999 and 2000 population and housing censuses, respectively, to measure coverage and content errors.  Also, a number of countries including Eritrea, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, are planning to conduct PES’s in their next censuses.


c. Training of staff


10.              It has been observed that although census project documents have included training as a major activity for censuses, it is, however, not undertaken during the census period as planned, mainly due to pressure of work.  Thus, the intercensal periods, considered as a cooling-off period, have effectively been used for training census staff.


3. Undertaking data collection and analysis



·        A number of countries are participating in the collection and analysis of data related to emerging issues.  For example, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, which is implementing the government policy on decentralization, has developed and produced district profiles; subnational data collection and analysis for monitoring and evaluating the impact and spread of HIV/AIDS has been ongoing in a number of countries, including Ghana, Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania; and collection of data for monitoring progress in poverty eradication programmes is ongoing in Ghana and the United Republic of Tanzania.


D. Constraints, problems and challenges


11.              Although most countries have been involved in implementing intercensal programmes, only a limited number have had clear objectives.  Some national statistics offices have not been very successful in establishing a proper institutional framework.  Also, funding mechanisms, to facilitate successful intercensal programmes, have been extremely weak.  If the intercensal programmes are to succeed, countries have to undertake in-depth analysis of constraints and challenges that have characterized the programme in the past and identify appropriate solutions.  Some of the constraints and challenges are given below.

1. Absence of clear objectives and strategies for implementing intercensal programmes


·        Experience indicates that many countries in the subregion do not have clear objectives or programmes on intercensal activities.  Thus, the activities undertaken in the past were mainly ad hoc in nature, most of them supported by donors with no specific time frame and incapable of satisfying national interests.  It is important to emphasize that this has been a critical challenge for the intercensal programmes. 


·        For the few countries that appeared to have developed and adopted clear objectives, inadequate implementation strategies have been the main constraint/challenge. 


2. Lack of adequate financial resources


·                    Over the last two decades, most governments in the subregion suffered from a number of calamities including economic downtown, debts and famine, poor governance, poverty, HIV/AIDS and internal and external conflicts.  These calamities have, in most cases, resulted in serious budgetary cuts at national statistics offices.  Without adequate resources, planned intercensal activities have been either suspended or delayed. 


·                    In the past, governments received massive assistance from foreign donors for statistical development, including implementation of intercensal programmes.  In most cases, however, such funding was unsustainable because of its temporary nature.  For example, two statistics offices are known to have received 70 to 80 per cent of their financial requirements from the donor community. However, when the funding was drastically reduced, statistical activities were seriously affected, especially intercensal activities.  


3. Poor organizational frameworks and inadequately skilled manpower


12.              Intercensal programmes are major statistical activities and therefore require well-structured organizations to plan and implement the activities.  However, it has been observed that since the intercensal programmes are ad hoc, structures created to implement them are also ad hoc. When they are established, they are usually spontaneous and targeted towards satisfying specific activities.   Thus, they are dismantled immediately after the specific need is satisfied.


13.              Experience shows that with well-established organizational structures with adequate capacity to undertake skilled work, implementation of the intercensal programme will thrive.  Specifically, it has been observed that there are:


·                    Limited skills to undertake high-level technical statistical activities, including sampling, data analysis and gender studies; 

·        Inadequate staff in national statistics offices to undertake intercensal work, a problem which has recently been aggravated by the restructuring programmes spearheaded by the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund);

·        Inadequate training programmes for statistical staff, a task that, in the past, was effectively undertaken under the Statistical Training Programme for Africa (STPA), a programme that has since been closed; and

·        Lack of statistical master plans in almost all countries to guide implementation of the intercensal programme.


14.              Experience indicates that countries that have succeeded in responding to some of the above-mentioned problems have also succeeded in undertaking praiseworthy intercensal programmes.  


E. Contribution of the intercensal programme to the improvement of census work


15.              In addition to providing a strong framework for additional data collection between censuses, successful intercensal programmes contribute to improvement in census efficiency and quality by using the intercensal period to complete any remaining census work; sharpening census instruments (questionnaires and cartographic maps); critically reviewing census strategies and procedures; checking and reporting on the quality of census data (coverage and content errors); ensuring continuity of census work beyond production of final results through retaining experienced staff; and ensuring adequate availability of census equipment and supplies.


16.              During the 1990 and 2000 census rounds, intercensal programmes have not contributed immensely to the enhancement of efficiency and quality of census data.  Among other things, it is observed that census offices were more than pre-occupied with long periods of data processing and cartographic mapping.  This was aggravated by inadequate funding as well as an institutional framework that was too weak to undertake the exercise. The following strategies are likely to strengthen the intercensal programmes:


·        It is the general view that if census offices properly harness modern scanning technology (optical character recognition ([OCR] and optical mark readers [OMR]) or appropriately use personal computers (PCs) (by deploying an adequate number of work stations, with several work shifts), the long delays which used to occupy census offices for long periods after census enumeration will be an issue of the past.  Also, the problem of non-pre-coded questionnaires, a serious problem in the past, has been overcome by ensuring that all questions are pre-coded before going to the field, a cost-effective strategy.  Experience indicates that many man-months were spent in coding, followed by many more months in manual data entry, editing and tabulation.  For example, in the 1988 population census of the United Republic of Tanzania, the data processing programme took 36 months to complete.  It is anticipated that the scanning methodology will reduce time spent for data entry to about six months.  For example, Kenya has already produced census results from the 1999 census by using OCR scanning technology.  Shorter periods for data processing will ensure availability of adequate time for qualitative checks for the census data and other census preparatory work.


·        Development and preparations of census maps can occupy census office staff for long periods.  In the past, national statistics offices spent long periods canvassing EAs for updates and drawing and producing maps. For some countries, the process is known to have taken more than three years.  For example, in the last censuses of Kenya and Ghana (1999 and 2000, respectively), although the EA cartographic exercise had an adequate lead time of three years, the programmes were not satisfactorily completed for census enumeration.  Cartographic work for the forthcoming Tanzania census has been ongoing since 1997 and is yet to be completed.  Furthermore, it has been observed that post-enumeration cartographic activities were related mainly to finalizing the maps instead of checking for quality.  With a shift from traditional mapping to the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, time spent on cartographic work will be reduced.  With gains in time spent on mapping, more time will be available for checking accuracy of maps and other census-related instruments.


·        As already indicated, establishing permanent census organizational structures will ensure continuity of census work beyond production of final results.  It is, however, important to note that countries have realized the need for continuity and are establishing structures which become institutional memory for subsequent censuses, thereby ensuring that census preparatory work is initiated on time. 


·        Because intercensal programmes come, as they logically do, after an expensive and complex census programme, governments are not very keen to provide funding for immediate statistical work.  With such a scenario, the likely victim is the intercensal work.


F. Prospects for future intercensal programmes


17.              Prospects for intercensal programmes are bright, especially if national statistics offices can effectively respond to emerging developments. These are:


·        The recent developments related to good governance, which will encourage governments to demonstrate transparency through quantitative measurements.  Governments are more likely, therefore, to give priority to statistical data collection, including an intercensal programme.

·        The improvement of statistical legislation and accountability (for example, creating an autonomous statistical agency to coordinate national statistical work) would ensure effectiveness of programmes.  Benefits accruing to such systems are being realized in Uganda and Ghana. 

·        Improving ways in which data are collected, processed and analysed by harnessing recent developments in technology—for example, scanning methodology or the use of PCs instead of mainframe computers.

·        New data requirements associated with debt forgiveness programmes as, for example, HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries), which entails continuous collection of data for monitoring socio-economic development.

·        New initiatives by the subregional organizations, such as the East Africa Community, to assist member countries to collect and analyse statistical data.  The initiative is expected to attract resources from member states.


G. Conclusions and recommendations


18.              The intercensal programmes have not been effective in the subregion because of a number of constraints.  Particularly, the expected contributions to enhancement of census quality have been limited, due mainly to poor technology and the absence of appropriate organizational frameworks. It is the view that if national governments accord statistical work the priority it deserves, prospects for improvement of intercensal programmes do exist.  


19.              The following recommendations will contribute to strengthening intercensal programmes in the subregion: 


·                    Creating awareness among data users, particularly policy makers, to accord the highest priority to statistical development, especially for intercensal activities. This will ensure that adequate human and financial resources are allocated to statistical development.  


·                    Developing statistical master plans and structures capable of responding to ever-growing intercensal data requirements. There should be deliberate efforts to have intercensal programmes that can ensure efficient and quality census programmes.


·                    Building capacity in survey management in all national statistics offices by reactivating The Statistical Training Programme for Africa (STPA) for professional and sub-professional staff. 


·                    Creating permanent census offices that will ensure continuity of census work and encourage retention of experienced staff.


·                    Recent technological development in data processing and census cartography should be exploited.  Scanning technology has a bright future.  Meanwhile, before the technology is well entrenched in the region, countries should continue proper planning for manual data entry by use of PCs.  Also, adoption of GIS technology should drastically reduce time required for development of EA maps and therefore free staff to undertake improvement in the quality of census cartography. 


·                    Intercensal activities, such as large-scale surveys, should be vehicles for collecting additional data between censuses and hence minimize the burden put on respondents by lengthy census questionnaires. Future censuses should therefore be simplified by collecting only basic demographic variables, while leaving the bulk of the data to be collected during the intercensal period.  Also, improvements in civil registration will contribute to providing data on population dynamics during the intercensal period, especially births and deaths. 




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* This document was reproduced without formal editing

** UNFPA, Ethiopia. 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