The 2024 census big question

The 2024 census big question
President Museveni launches the 2024 census at Kololo Ceremonial grounds on Tuesday. PHOTO/X

Census questions can be unpleasant and intrusive. The last Uganda census in 2014 had questions like: Does any member of this household own… (Assets; that is a motor vehicle, radio, television, donkey etc.)? What type of toilet does this household mainly use? What was the main source of this household’s livelihood in the last 12 months? What is your marital status? Of the children borne, how many are dead?

This 2024 census exercise stretching from May 09-19 is likely to be of the same meddling flavor. But the situation this time could be compounded by another factor; the lack of trust in the government which is conducting the census. Which means that getting the right and truthful answers to those questions will not be easy for the enumerators.

It also explains why each enumerator is by law made to swear an oath of confidentiality regarding the information they collect. And they are also required to read from a standard issue form the following words: “Whatever information you provide will be kept strictly confidential. We would very much appreciate your participation and co- operation in this Census”.

But the second enumerator question will be the most important: “Please give the full names of all persons who spent the night of May 09, 2024 in this household including visitors”.

This is the sixth population census Uganda has undertaken since it attained independence in 1962. Normally they are held after 10 year intervals. The theme for this census is “It matters to be counted”. The theme in 2024 was ‘Counting for Planning and Improved Service Delivery’.

They all point at the importance of the census in the provision of vital statistics on total population count which is a denominator and key indicator used for resource allocation, measurement of the extent of service delivery, decision making and budgeting among others.

According to UBOS, the long-term objective of the National Population and Housing Census (NPHC) is to ensure availability of bench-mark demographic and socio-economic data for use in planning, evidence based decision making, policy formulation and programme evaluation.

At the launch of the National Population and Housing Census (NPHC) 2024 in December2023 at Kololo Independence Grounds, UBOS Executive Director of UBOS, Chris Mukiza, revealed that the exercise is this time 98% funded by the government of Uganda.

“In the previous one in 2014, the government funded 75 percent and then partners funded 25 percent, so now we are becoming self-sustaining, and this shows the strong interest and commitment the government of Uganda has in evidence-based planning and policy management,” he said.

The working statistics published by UBOS put the Uganda’s population at about 46 million of whom 48.79% are male and 51.21% are female. But that is likely to change after this census. Ten years ago, according to the 2014 census figures, Uganda’s population was 34.6 million. That means the Uganda population grows by over one million individuals each year.

At the launch of the National Population and Housing Census (NPHC) 2024 in December2023 at Kololo Independence Grounds, President Yoweri Museveni enumerated the benefits of being counted.

“The aim of the counting seems to be how many people? Where are they? How are they? What do they own? And where are the services? These are the questions that will be answered,” he said.

“These questions are very crucial so that the government can plan for you better because you cannot plan properly for people you don’t know. Let us get the census so that it gives us the answers to all these questions, and then we shall be able to know how to help Ugandans better. The purpose of the counting is mainly planning,” he asserted.

Low trust affects census

But getting the right information this time could be compounded by another factor; the lack of trust in the government which is conducting the census.

According to latest survey figures, trust in government institutions has been declining. A survey report by the pan-African research agency, Afrobarometer, released in August 2023 showed that trust in five out of seven institutions of government was either below or barely above 50%. Trust in police was 41%, courts of law 50%, parliament 52%, local government 50%, and the National Electoral Commission 42%. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) which is conducting the 2024 census was no listed but it likely could be trusted either below or barely above 50%.

Museveni launches census 2024

According to David Everatt, a professor of Urban Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, a low trust in the government is one of the main factors that could lead to a normal but undesirable census reality called the “undercount”. This describes a situation where some people who should be counted are either missed or chose not to be counted.

Prof. Everatt was involved in the process for the South African census as chair of South Africa’s National Statistics Council. He says low trust in the government substantially contributed to the South African census of 2022 recording a very high undercount with – 31% of people and 30% of households missed (or chose not to self-enumerate, either online or via zero-rated telephone methods).

Everatt says this is the highest undercount of any post-apartheid census and sadly, it may have set a new international record.

“Although the census is conducted by Stats SA, which is an independent entity, it is seen as “government”. This label didn’t make it easy to persuade people to allow an enumerator into their dwellings and answer questions,” says Everatt. In Uganda’s case, you can place UBOS in place of Stats SA.

Many people across the world are concerned that censuses these days go beyond simply asking how many people live at each household.

While some of these questions are justified, much of the information is already collected through other methods such as annual income tax returns, passports, driver licenses, social insurance numbers, and birth certificates, some experts say.

During the 2000 census in the USA, The Washington Post newspaper reported on this under the headline: “Census Too Nosy? Don’t Answer Invasive Questions, GOP Suggests”

“The Census Bureau has received complaints for decades about questions such as those asking people what time they leave for work or how many bathrooms they have,” the story said.

But Prof. Everatt says even more significant as a cause for the undercount, is the context in which the census is held.

The South African census was held during the COVID-19 pandemic period which affected training and supply chains for equipment. The pandemic also generated anxiety in a populace that had been avoiding contact with strangers as part of social distancing.

Census planning usually starts three or four years prior to fieldwork. Training about 100,000 enumerators is a major effort in its own right, combined with the shift to digital platforms for the first time. All were affected by the pandemic.

In Uganda’s case, the census is taking place in the context of heightened tension between the government and parts of the population regarding proposed increases in tax rates and introduction of new taxation processes.

It is happening barely a week after President Museveni held a charged meeting with members of the trading community in the capital, Kampala. The meeting followed another week of the traders shuttering their shops in protest.

Sick and tired people

The South African undercount was also attributed to a general trend of response rates getting consistently lower over at least the last decade. This was true for Stats SA and other entities undertaking primary research.

It should be noted that Stats SA decided to go digital in an attempt to open different avenues for people to complete the questionnaire online, or by phone, to improve response rates.

Prof: Everatt says countries around the world are facing the same challenge of low response rates. “People appear to be sick and tired of being polled by everyone, from their local supermarket to endless tele-marketers and others. They also appear much more wary of sharing their data,” he says.

Prof. Everatt says that, faced with these challenges, the future for the census could lie in the advent of big data which he says “opens intriguing possibilities”.

He says a first step for the government would be to harvest data from the records kept by government departments (assuming they are run well). In addition, data could be unlocked if a working relationship was developed with private sector entities, such as suppliers and banks.

Becoming far more tech-savvy, and encouraging people to engage with statistics entities could be combined with other options to compile a national population dataset. It would also represent a significant cost-saving.

“This approach – harvesting data rather than gathering it directly – is being considered by many countries, but has not yet been attempted,” says Everatt.

This Uganda census is being billed as “the first paperless census” because enumerators will use digital phones and Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI) Tablets and a Global Positioning System (GPS) to collect data.

According to UBOS, the digital census should produce more accurate and timely demographic, social and economic statistics compared to the previous laborious analog processes.

According to the UN, recent technological developments have offered many National Statistics Organisations (NSOs) opportunities to modernise their census operations, especially with regard to constructing digital maps, electronic capture of census data during the interview, real-time validation and dissemination of census results.

The use of technology has become an integral part of census processes critical for improving cost-efficiency of the census and data quality (coverage, accuracy, timeliness).

However, depending heavily on technologies in conducting and management of census operations brings new challenges and operational considerations that have to be considered in planning and designing census activities.

Important post-census activity

The May 09 election reference night exercise was preceded by a census mapping in 11 cities namely Mbale, Jinja, Soroti, Arua, Fort Portal, Gulu, Masaka, Kampala, Mbarara, Hoima that started on Jan.22. The Election night exercise launched the 10-day census period stretching from May 09-19.

The census exercise will be followed in June by a post-enumeration survey data collection exercise and release of preliminary results in June. Provisional results will be released in September and final results in December.

If UBOS follows the 2014 census approach, over the next 12 months, it should produce several reports based on data gathered including; Final District Reports, Analytical Results – Monograph Series, District-level Analytical Reports, Census Atlas and an Administrative report.

In the 2014 census which were conducted from August 27 to September 07, the provisional results report released after two months in November and the main report in March 2016. However, in some areas such as Kampala City and few other urban areas, some extra days were allowed to cover the persons who had not been enumerated during the official enumeration period.

The Post Enumeration Survey, which immediately follows a census, is the most critical. It is what identifies where the census missed people. This allows the statisticians to develop adjustment factors, or weights, so that the final data represents an adjusted final tally.

The Post Enumeration Survey is used to manage the undercount. Census undercounts are the norm, not the exception, says Prof. Everatt. However, when they are as high as 31.06% – analysts may identify some confounding results. Many countries do not, however, conduct post enumeration surveys. A post-enumeration survey of the 2014Uganda census was undertaken in October/November 2014. It covered 800 Enumeration Areas distributed in all districts of the country and Kampala Capital City.

The next, which UBOS has not said it will do, is to make available both the weighted and the raw data for analysts to examine in detail. In the 2014 census, in addition to the above listed reports, UBOS pledged to provide electronic datasets to facilitate deeper analysis by researchers. This transparency is often welcomed, given that (as previously noted by the United Nations Statistics Division) issues of undercounting affect all countries, and estimating the undercount and whether to adjust the data is a political issue “throughout the world”, accord to Everatt.

According to Prof. Everatt, experts who engaged with the data from the South African census of 2022 flagged a few variables on mortality data and some service and asset questions which had “too many non-responses to be reliable”.

According to experts, no census is ever exact.

“A census is not, in reality, a full and accurate count of the number of people in a country; rather, it is itself an estimate of the size of the population at a moment in time,” writes Prof. Everatt, who quotes fellow academics Tom Moultrie and Rob Dorrington of the University of Cape Town.

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