By Thoraya Ahmed Obaid

Every country counts its people. The numbers tell decision-makers about current and future needs.

“Everyone counts” is the theme for this year’s World Population Day.

If people and their characteristics aren’t counted, governments can’t plan. If identification is not granted, it is impossible to track progress over a lifetime. If a birth certificate indicates a need for schooling, that informs the education system. If death records specify, to the extent possible, cause of death, health systems can be oriented to meet actual needs. If death records specify causes related to HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, pregnancy and childbirth, specific health services can be prioritized. Government planning depends on local and regional information that is supplemented by interviews with the groups most concerned. Such data makes it possible to meet real needs.

Good data is critical for evidence-based policies and programs for improving people’s lives. Yet while timely and reliable data is routine in richer countries, many resource-constrained developing countries struggle to conduct the censuses and surveys that they need for effective planning.

For the past 30 years, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has played a lead operational role in helping to build countries' capacities for data collection and analysis. A current focus of UNFPA support is the successful implementation of the 2010 round of population and housing censuses (2005-2014).

In 2009, UNFPA supported 77 governments’ national population and housing censuses and paved the way for other censuses in 2010. This work is often complex, as in Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Sudan. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, UNFPA is promoting
new data collection technologies and assisting Bosnia and Herzegovina to conduct a census. In Africa, UNFPA is helping to analyze data collected by recent censuses in Chad, Liberia and Nigeria. All these countries could not complete their censuses in 2000 and Liberia’s successful census ended a period of more than 30 years in which no statistical work could be done. In Asia and the Pacific, the enumerations have successfully concluded in Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Viet Nam and censuses are being prepared for East Timor and Mongolia. In Latin America and the Caribbean, national statistical institutes are participating in training to enhance skills for data collection and analysis.

Census data reveals compelling characteristics about employment, education and health services in countries. It provides information about population growth, the movements of people, age structures, poverty levels, urbanization and the spatial distribution of a country's population. Countries can use that information to plan investments, save lives and improve opportunities for present and future generations.

With world attention focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and the upcoming MDG10 Summit at the United Nations in September, the availability of consistent and comparable statistical information has become even more crucial. Data for development plays a prominent role in monitoring progress, assessing and realigning plans and strategies, and conducting effective advocacy. Data, and public access to it, contributes to transparency and accountability.
Obaid is executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Copyright (C) 2010 by American Forum. 7/10