Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On how Afghanistan shows the importance of having a census

A recent article by Joseph Goldstein in The New York Times, "For Afghans, Name and Birthdate Census Questions Are Not So Simple", caught my attention.

After long delays, false starts and squandered millions in foreign aid, the great Afghan census is finally underway. The process is more than an exercise in counting bodies but one that, officials hope, will head off the kind of voter fraud that plagued the presidential election this past year.

The census teams generally include a man and a woman who often spend considerable time waiting in front of doors that never open, often because of purdah, the custom of sequestering women indoors away from men not their husbands or relatives and requiring a burqa when outside.

[. . .]

Since census workers began knocking on doors in Kabul this year, they have registered 70,000 people — just 2 percent of the city. Optimistic Afghan officials say it will take years before the entire country is surveyed.

“We believe we will reach 70 percent of the population in five years,” said Homayoun Mohtaat, the project’s director.

Nobody knows just how many people reside in Afghanistan. The last census, in 1979, found some 14.6 million people. Afghanistan’s Population Registration Department currently has records for about 17 million Afghan citizens, according to officials.
Wikipedia's "Demographics of Afghanistan" article notes that, apart from a survey performed in 2009, Afghanistan really has no firm data on demographic trends at all. This, as Goldstein notes, can harm individual lives.

Each name is listed in a clothbound ledger book stacked on sagging metal racks in four dusty rooms in the offices of the department, a government agency.

For years, this is where citizens have come to seek a passport, join the army or change their marital status. Before that can happen, though, the petitioner’s identity must be verified in one of the books. Clerks say they almost never fail to locate an entry, except for people with the bad luck of being listed on the first or last page. Those names and photos have largely worn away from use over the decades.

The clerks who work here have the carnival-worthy ability to guess a person’s age within a year, a necessity in a place where few actually know how old they are.

Mr. Mohtaat guesses the census will yield a count of 35 million to 40 million Afghans.

As Sune Engel Rasmussen writing in The Guardian noted in the case of Kabul, the lack of firm data makes it difficult for governments and others to get a handle on the country's problems. The case of booming Kabul is the particular focus of Rasmussen's article, but doubtless similar stories could be told about other Afghan cities and regions.
Though exact data is impossible to obtain (the last official census was conducted in 1979), Kabul is estimated to be the fifth fastest growing city in the world, with a population which has ballooned from approximately 1.5 million in 2001 to around 6 million people now. The rapid urbanisation is taking a heavy toll on a city originally designed for around 700,000 people. An estimated 70% of Kabul’s residents live in informal or illegal settlements.

“The situation is putting a strain on the existing infrastructure and resources – and makes it difficult to ensure security across Kabul,” said Prasant Naik, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides legal counselling and shelter to displaced Afghans and is one of the largest humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan.

A significant share of Kabul’s economy is driven by illicit businesses, such as the drug trade, facilitated by corruption. (According to a recent survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan’s opium cultivation hit record levels this year.)

With economic growth slowed from 9% in 2003 to 3.2% in 2014, jobs are scarce and the vast majority of Kabul’s workers are either self-employed or casual labourers.
Afghanistan has many problems. One particularly important problem, I'd argue, is the lack of firm data about just who is living in Afghanistan and what they're doing. Without good data, many things become difficult. Here's to hoping that Afghanistan succeeds in this particular project.

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