To fulfil the full potential of the population census | By Dr Luay Shabaneh


To fulfil the full potential of the population census


I have just proudly registered myself and my family through the self-enumeration portal the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) kicked off on 20 February 2023.  PBS is amid a huge undertaking to implement the seventh population census; it is the first-ever digital census in the country.  It required a lot of technical, administrative and logistical preparations, in addition to building a huge ICT infrastructure and launching a massive campaign of training and advocacy.

Censuses globally were designed to serve primarily development, not politics, although some countries utilize census data for political activities, including elections, political power distribution, etc. Politically, the census is a sovereign activity; countries count the people in their sovereign territory using their own legislation and laws for policy and planning purposes. It is also a part of the preparation for elections in Pakistan, although different from the standard practice globally. What matters genuinely is ensuring that all decisions regarding the preparation, implementation and dissemination of all census results are based on professional merits and conducted independently and freely by the statistical authority which is the practice so far in Pakistan.

Implementing a digital census is limited to the use of technology in collecting and processing data but opens a horizon for unlimited opportunities to serve all sectors at all administrative levels by linking census data with other surveys and information from different sources, including sample surveys and civil survey registration and vital statistics. For instance, the census can provide enormous information to reduce maternal deaths. A recent report by UNFPA, WHO, UNICEF, World Bank and the UN Population Division on 23 February 2023 revealed alarming setbacks for women’s health over recent years. According to the report, maternal deaths either increased or stagnated in nearly all regions of the world.

Dr. Tedros of WHO contends that while pregnancy should be a time of immense hope and a positive experience for all women, it is tragically still a shockingly dangerous experience for millions around the world who lack access to high-quality, respectful healthcare.  Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA, stated that major investment in maternal health is needed now more than ever to save lives and make childbirth safer.  According to the report, one woman dies every two minutes due to causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

The situation in Pakistan is not an exception, where a woman dies every 45 minutes due to obstetric causes.  The tragedy is that we know that nearly all maternal deaths from preventable causes can be averted if women receive good quality medical care in a timely fashion. The census is an opportunity to produce data at the lowest geographic classification to improve health services and reduce maternal mortality.

The census is considered a mine of data with unlimited opportunities to benefit communities and sectors if appropriately utilized.  For instance, using advanced statistical methods to link the data from the census with the upcoming Demographic and Health Survey planned by NIPS provides enormous information at the provincial, district and tehsil levels on many socioeconomic indicators. This is an opportunity to design and implement customized plans and prioritize interventions accommodating domestic circumstances to improve livelihood and well-being.

Conducting a digital census relying on hi-tech is an important benchmark in the professional career of PBS. But the key performance indicators (KPI) for the success of a digital census need to be measured by outcomes, not processes; I suggest to my dear colleagues and friends at PBS to measure the success of the digital census by two key KPIs; the first is the ability to serve all sectors and interventions that contribute to improving the situation in Pakistan.  The census should serve governments at all administrative levels, civil society and the private sector.  It should also enhance the capacity of the provincial bureaus of statistics.  It should also serve academia, graduate students and multidisciplinary research by utilizing census data through the proper access to microdata public use files to do in-depth analysis and prediction for future needs to help the country move from responsive to proactive planning and public management; this is very much needed during the era of climate change.

The second KPI speaks to timeliness; making the data available for public use on time is vital.  The past common practice in Pakistan and other countries assumes that the data processing and tabulation takes many months and, in some cases, years to make data accessible to public use; this downgrades the values of the census data from real-time information to a historical snapshot of the population. One can only justify the need for a huge investment in carrying out a high-cost census within the deteriorated economic conditions in Pakistan by fulfilling the full potential of census opportunity and achieving multiplier effects,

UNFPA encourages PBS and other stakeholders to come together and agree on a national plan to invest in the census, making it a mega benchmark to rationalize planning, governance and intervention toward a better life for all Pakistani people, particularly the vulnerable. We stand ready to continue our technical support in statistics and convert data into useful knowledge to make national and domestic plans and programs people-centred and vulnerable-focused to leave no one behind.

—The writer is UNFPA Representative.