Why census is important

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The national census, which the government started on 10 April through the Bureau of Statistics, comes to an end on Saturday. The exercise is conducted every 10 years and Bureau of Statistics Director, Liengoane Lefosa, explains to Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, why this population count is important to the nation.

LT: Lesotho is in the middle of a census and we understand your department has met with challenges since the exercise began. But before we get into this, could you briefly tell us what a census is?

Lefosa: A census is a complete count of the national population and households. The outcome is compared to the previous census to determine if and how the population has grown over the last 10 years. The census also gives us data on the movement of the population. For instance, it has been found during the current census that in some areas in Mafeteng, people have moved from their settlements.

Again, some areas remained farmlands without any human settlements but today, those fields have become residential areas. Public services have to be provided to those areas. The census, therefore, helps in the planning of the distribution of public services. All this information will be reflected in the census outcome and help policymakers plan accordingly.

The census is also used to capture data on the rate of deaths and births since the last count. It is also important for public administration; for the equitable distribution and allocation of government funds to different regions or districts. The population data is also used for planning education and health services as well as delineating electoral boundaries. For instance, the Ministry of Education and Training would like to know how many children will be entering Early Childhood Care Development (ECCD). If there is need to improve or increase such childcare centres, it will be as a result of what the statistics reveal. The same goes for children who will be starting primary and higher education.

The Ministry of Health, on the other hand, needs to know how many children need vaccination. Health workers should be able to stock adequate vaccines so that all children are immunised. They can only do this if they have proper population statistics. Even where there is abject poverty, the authorities are able to identify the most vulnerable areas through data from the census.

We also use the census as a benchmark for statistical compilation. We don’t only compile the total number of the population but also classify that by age distribution. The data is presented in categories of age groups and sex.

The census is also important for research and analysis. Researchers from universities and other academic institutions need reliable statistical data. So you could say the census facilitates academic excellence and informed decision-making.

LT: There have been complaints that some of the questions you ask are sensitive and that people don’t always see their relevance…

Lefosa: It is important for the people to understand we work under very strict confidentiality. It is true we ask for the names of every individual as we collect data from every household but we don’t include them in the final report. Nobody will know who said what because the census is ultimately about the total population, not individuals. So people should rest assured we are strictly prohibited from sharing individuals’ information with anybody. We operate under a strict confidentiality clause enshrined in our Statistics Act. The enumerator who gets into your house to collect data cannot divulge certain information even to his or her immediate supervisor. That information remains confidential between the enumerator and the head of the household who shared it. The enumerator and supervisor can only discuss technical information in relation to the data collected from the households.

LT: What is the point of asking for such private information then?

Lefosa: I will give an example to illustrate the point. There are people who are on medication for chronic illnesses and we can ask them about the supply of that medication. Is it always available and does it meet demand? This will assist health-practitioners who will know how to make use of the information. They will be able to stock the medication in the right quantities where it’s needed.

We can even ask if people are having difficulties using stairs.  This way, we will be informing policymakers they should consider ramps and elevators because there are some people who cannot use stairs with ease even if they are not wheelchair-bound. Such buildings should be structured on the basis of the needs of the population not the architects.

LT: We noticed there is a section on albinism in the questionnaire. Have you always done this and if not, why now?

Lefosa: That section has been included for the first time in this census and that’s because there was a request from albinos. They said while they wanted to be treated like everybody else, it was important for them to be registered as albinos. They said this was because of the exclusive challenges and needs they have in relation to skin-pigmentation. They explained their skin is very sensitive to sunlight and as a result, need very expensive lotions.

They don’t just use any body-creams found on the shop shelves. Some suffer from skin cancer but unlike other cancer patients in the country, albinos can’t be referred to hospitals in Bloemfontein for chemotherapy. They said such services are not available in Bloemfontein but elsewhere in South Africa where they are very expensive.

Albinism affects almost every household, even the poorest families. This is why they are saying to us ‘you must know our numbers and where we are so that government will cater for us when crafting national policies’. They said there is no shame in being an albino. This will also help parents who have been preventing their children from playing with others in order to save them from embarrassment and the associated stigma of being an albino. Albinos are now officially our partners. They even participated in pre-census public awareness campaigns at district level.

LT: Apart from albinism, what other new issues have been included?

Lefosa: The other issue we have included for the first time in this census relates to gases used in different household refrigerators. We check the numbers in those fridges and these tell us what type of gas each fridge uses. We are doing this because some of these gases are not environment-friendly. Some fridges emit gases that lead to the depletion of the ozone layer and harm the environment. We have a new division called the Environment and Energy Statistics Division that scrutinises the issue of energy consumption.

We have also revised some of the questions we used to ask on issues of disability. The aim is to build an archive of meaningful information. We have, therefore, based our questions on the Washington Group on Disability for Newly Revised Questions for conducting the census.

We were also approached by LNFOD (Lesotho National Federation of Organisations of the Disabled) who questioned findings of the 2006 census results, that only three-percent of the population were people living with disability.

They challenged the figure, saying it was a gross underestimation of people living with disabilities in the country. So for this census, we had to go back and look at the manner in which we had asked the questions. And indeed when the questions were revised, we felt we had left out a lot of people with disabilities in the last census. We had only concentrated on people with physical disability. The number of our disabled population is definitely going to increase this time around due to the revised questions.

LT: There are reports of enumerators facing serious challenges while conducting the census. How has this affected the process?

Lefosa: We structured our process in such a way that where the enumerators encounter serious problems, there will be supervisors to assist. For every four enumerators, we have one supervisor assisting. So the enumerator immediately reports to the supervisor any challenges encountered. In addition, we have constituency supervisors ordinary supervisors report to if they cannot handle the challenge.

This structure has enabled us to deal with almost every challenge so far. So far we have not reached a stage where the challenges are such that I, as Director, had to intervene. In some cases, we have engaged area chiefs. I want to thank the chiefs because they solved every problem that was brought to them. They have been with us from the beginning.

LT: How true are reports that some of the challenges are due to the fact the process was run along political party lines.

Lefosa: Some people argued that the process was conducted on political lines but we explained that this is not a political exercise. This is a national exercise and everybody is obliged to participate. Every country needs a census for development planning. It is not a matter of which political party is in government. It is unfortunate that some people refused to be counted, arguing their party leaders were in exile. The census has always been conducted from as far back as 1966 and we have always had people in exile. That should not hinder the exercise.

LT: What is the next stage after the completion of the enumeration process this weekend?

Lefosa: The next stage is the post-enumeration survey. This is where the validity of the census is tested. This can be called the audit of the census. We examine the magnitude of errors. We have again employed 210 new enumerators for this exercise. Their supervisors are currently undergoing training. We have selected a few enumeration areas from each district for this process. The questionnaire for this stage is not as comprehensive as the one used in the enumeration stage. This is just a survey where we will sample a few households. It will run from 15 to 30 May. After that, there will be the matching exercise where we take data from the main census and compare it with responses from the survey.

LT: When can we expect the final report?

Lefosa: We anticipate the final results to be released before the end of July. However, I’m not committing myself to a specific month and date because if we fail to deliver, I will come under fire. We decided on electronic data-collection to speed-up the process but we still have to go the extra mile and assure ourselves that the data is indeed accurate and reliable. First we will release preliminary results with a few variables.

LT: How much has this process cost government? Are there any partners?

Lefosa: This process started as far back as the 2014/2015 financial year. We started with cartography. In the 2015/2016 year, we were allocated M45 million by the government. That money was used for pre-census activities, including the procurement of most of the equipment for the census. In the current financial year, government allocated M59 million. We also have partners like UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) who provided technical assistance. They sent an information technology (IT) specialist to help us. UNFPA also paid consultants who trained our enumerators. The other donor was USAID (United States Agency for International Development) that financed people who came to help us with an application to be used in the census. There is also UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund) who bought some of the census equipment. They actually gave us $100 000 and we used it to buy laptops and other IT equipment. We have 50 IT coordinators distributed around the country to work with enumerators.

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