COUNTING is one of the most basic intellectual exercises that children perform during those critical formative years to understand their world.
Taken to a national level in the form of a population census, this exercise helps countries understand and plan for their realities.
Ideally, a population census should be held every decade as anything beyond this timeframe risks major shifts that could ill-inform decision-making.
The population and housing census is the primary source of information on the number and characteristics of the population and its housing conditions: it is a stocktake of the most important asset of a country: its people, its human capital.
Information about growth, movements, structures, living conditions, spatial distribution and the habitat of a country's population is necessary for sound policy formulation, planning and implementation, often guided by a national population policy.
To break it down further, a population census helps policy-makers plan for schools, health facilities, and infrastructure (water, power, roads and communication). It can measure fertility, mortality and migration, so decision-makers can make plans guided by demographic trends.
It can uncover gender imparities in employment and/or education property ownership.
It can reveal the number of people with disabilities and orphans. It can also map out the types of dwellings, sources of drinking water and access to telecommunications and patterns of energy use.
Once evidence of gaps in development efforts are ascertained in this manner, an empowering exercise for communities is having the confidence to discuss and decide on actions to address them.
This unwittingly encourages participation in decision-making and underlines the importance of giving back the data to the communities where they belong and from where they were extracted.
Without such data, it would be like driving in the dark, as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Population and Development Branch Chief Jose Miguel Guzman says. The fact that the collection and analysis of data on population plays a critical role in policy-making has not been lost on countries over the last two decades; many have made demonstrable progress in obtaining such data from population census, agricultural census, demographic and health surveys, other thematic surveys, and administrative records like birth and death registers.
There is consensus however that a lot more needs to be done so that data is thoroughly analysed in a manner that fosters evidence-based policy formulation and monitoring.
As implicit in our organisational identity, UNFPA is fundamentally about population. It had initially acted more as a fund to assist the United Nations family in population-related matters, thus the early days' focus on numbers.
However, a fundamental shift at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) expanded this mandate in a Programme of Action (PoA) which now reflects UNFPA's work as all-encompassing of social, health, economic and environmental aspects of population dynamics.
Chapter 12 of the ICPD PoA highlights the importance of valid, reliable, timely, culturally-relevant and internationally comparable data for policy and programme development, implementation and monitoring and evaluation. The goal is ensuring UN member countries which request for it receives support to mobilise funds and technical capacity to complete a population census.
We are completing the 2010 round of population census. In this round, 229 countries or areas were scheduled to have at least one census. Of this, 180 have already conducted a census which has accounted for 6,009,520,274 persons or 87 per cent of the estimated world population, as of January 1, 2012.
This implies that about one billion persons remain to be counted in the 49 countries or areas not yet covered in this round of population censuses.
Over the last 30 years, UNFPA has played a lead role in building capacity within countries and regions to collate and analyse data; in partnership with relevant UN system organisations like the UN Population Division.
UNFPA has developed tools like a census portal created to allow countries access to technical guidance online. We have also worked with institutions like the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population and supported various qualitative and quantitative surveys and population and development-related research at global, regional and country-level.
UNFPA technical support can be from developing the census questionnaires to organising trainings for mapping and household listing, depending on the need or specific request made from governments. After the collection of data, UNFPA can participate in data analysis and dissemination.
Data supports countries to meet development goals like improving maternal health. In this example, a key indicator of the status of maternal health is the rate of maternal mortality.
In this area however, there is a history of inaccurate records and/or misclassification most aren't recorded as such as they died at home or by the time they reached and died in hospitals, there is no record of it stemming from birth complications. Population census data can address such information gaps, as Vietnam recently did to have a better reflection of its maternal mortality rate.
For this population census round, UNFPA executive director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin created a Special Initiative on Census (SIC) to spearhead the Fund's efforts in supporting developing and low-income countries to conduct their census.
SIC is now part of the UNFPA Population and Development Branch; it was a separate organisational unit in the past two years.
It aims to prevent failure by countries to carry out a population and housing census during this round because there was no money for it or because it did not have appropriate technical support.
There is an institutional determination that the 2010 population census round data will be better analysed, much more (widely) disseminated and better utilised.
So the next time enumerators come around, think of what they're doing for the future generation by informing development today; it should not be an inconvenience for it is a prerequisite to effective development policy and planning.
* Dirk Jena is the United Nations
Population Fund Pacific sub-regional
office director and representative.