Development potential in new census

Mohammad Salim and his colleague had walked for half a day to reach a six-member family living in an isolated part of the Yakawolang valley in the central province of Bamian. The reason for the journey, and for thousands of others over coming weeks was to collect information for Afghanistan’s first post-conflict census.

The census results will be an important developmental tool for post-conflict Afghanistan. "Agencies will use the information to make sure their programmes are effective. This means delivering their services to the right place, in the most appropriate manner and monitoring the results to make any changes that are necessary," Joseph Crowley of the UN's Afghanistan Information Management Service (AIMS) told IRIN.

But Afghanistan's geography, history and culture are making the data collection process a difficult one. "The villages are too scattered and often there's the danger of land mines," Salim, a 30-year-old employee of Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) told IRIN in the village of Shatu.

This is Afghanistan's first census in 24 years, and according to survey staff, it's a novel concept for many rural Afghans who are puzzled as to why they need to volunteer information. "Why do you want to know the exact number of people living in our village?" Ahmad Hussein, a mullah from Shatu, abruptly asked one of the survey team.

However, other representatives of the village were more welcoming, happy to see government people in the isolated valley after decades. "I hope it is a good start for sharing humanitarian and political developments with these extremely forgotten people," one elder told IRIN.

Quite apart from providing accurate information for government planners and national and international development agencies, the census is likely to have other important spin-offs. The survey teams are also assessing the humanitarian requirements of every village and community they pass through. "We also mention in our forms the condition of roads, water supply, schools, clinics and any other important humanitarian and social information of an area," Salim said.

Salim and his ten colleagues, split into five teams of two people each, are among 230 staff from the statistics office currently in the provinces of Badakhshan, Ghowr and Bamian. They go literally from door to door collecting vital information on family size, ages, occupation, etc.

The survey also has an important part to play in the country's political development. The electoral commission will use the results to construct electoral rolls and districts ahead of next year's scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections.

The survey staff noted that there were real cultural barriers to collecting information, particularly in rural areas. "Often it is difficult to ask about ages and names of female members of a family," he said, maintaining that by tradition men rarely discussed their wives and daughters with strangers. "But it is not preventing us from doing our job."

Afghanistan's last national census was carried out in 1979, just before the Soviet invasion. Since then the country has been mired in conflict and natural disasters, with huge population movements. As a consequence, there is very little reliable demographic data on anything, including how many people are currently resident in the country.

The CSO puts the figure at 23.7 million including 1.5 million nomads, but this is pure guesswork based on projected growth from the 13.5 million recorded in 1979. The CSO has so far covered seven of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces since the preliminary phase, which started in January. According to the CSO, the seven-million-dollar survey will be completed by March 2004.