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“The state of our nation”

by Sebastian Muah
National Population and Housing Census

National Population and Housing Census

For the first time in 24 years, Liberia carried out a census in 2008. The challenges were daunting, but the results are useful, as an official from the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs elaborated in an interview with Hans Dembowski. [ Interview with Sebastian Muah ]

What was the background of the Liberian census in 2008?
A population census is supposed to result in precise numbers of how many people live in which place. When we took the census in Liberia, the country had just emerged from over 14 years of conflict. The challenges were immense, and our equipment and human capacities were limited. When the transport situation is difficult, it is hard to collect and collate data. There were many loose ends, moreover. In many places there was no operational administration at the local level, so our staff were on their own when assessing who was living in those places. In some ways, we were dealing with moving targets.

Please give an example.
Well, we were not in control of road infrastructure; although some coordination was in place to rehabilitate roads on the major arteries of the country, the rainy season quickly made those impassable. So the continued effort to ensure synchronisation with other agencies proved quite difficult.

But couldn’t you base your work on the results of an earlier census?
No, we had to start from scratch. In Liberia’s 160 years of history, the 2008 census was only the fourth such national exercise. The immediate previous census had taken place 24 years earlier, and its data was never published and never fully analysed. So there was no valid baseline.

How did you rise to the challenges?
The government’s leadership, ownership and support was critical. Lack of capacities proved a binding constraint, and still is: we have not yet fully analysed the data. Our young democracy certainly needs solid socio-economic data, so the effort is worthwhile. It was not easy to mobilise the resources we needed, but it will be easier next time because now we can build on experience. Furthermore, the capacity at LISGIS, the Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-Information Services, and other government services are being built up to function within the National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS).

Did your government change policies due to the result of the census?
Yes, the census has made a difference. The preliminary result of the census was fed into the development of the Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), for instance. Policy decisions are gradually coming into play with the completed census. One controversial issue at stake is the reapportioning of citizens’ representation in our parliament. This has constitutional implications. The census showed that the constituencies do not accurately reflect the population. Some voting districts are home to very many people, others only to a few. We now know that the borders of the districts have to be redrawn. The National Elections Commission is therefore using the census as it gears up for the next elections due in 2011.

Was there any impact in terms of economic ­policymaking?
Yes, the census provided valuable information that was used in a study that has led to the development of what we call “economic corridors”. These corridors are integral parts of the government’s growth strategy and thus crucial to the national vision. Furthermore, the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs is using census data to develop its Poverty Social Impact Assessment. It has also begun to consider local-level development strategies. The census’ enumeration is useful in that context too.

Who else is using the data – and for which ­purposes?
Well, I must note that the applications I have mentioned so far are just based on the enumeration of Liberia’s population. The full analysis of the data will take until the end of this year. It will certainly provide more important insights. All in all, we will get a much clearer idea of the state of our nation. But until we finish the analysis, most institutions cannot use the bulk of the data because they lack the capacity to analyse the data themselves. So far, only the enumeration has been published.

On what kind of data did your government rely before the census?
Various surveys were the primary sources of empirical information. There was the Demographic and Health Survey, the Core Welfare Indicator Questionnaire (CWIQ) and the Population Poverty Assessment (PPA). Moreover, individual organisations and entities conducted ad hoc surveys of their own. The downside was that such surveys cannot be perfectly accurate. To do sampling, you need to know the exact number of the total population. Unless you do so, your samples will lead more to guestimates than to reliable estimates.

Liberia is in a period of reconstruction after war. Did the census touch upon traumas?
The census did not touch ­upon traumas of the conflict directly. At the time of the census, Liberia had an ongoing Truth and Reconciliation process, so we did not include any questions that directly related to traumas of war. Nonetheless, the data we gathered does reflect some of the conflict’s consequences. We gained information on household sizes and people’s mobility. Once all this information is analysed, we will have a better understanding of how the war affected people and why they moved from one place to another. We also have data relating to orphans and the gender of heads of households. The analysis of this information will tell us something about the level of trauma.

What role did international donors and their agencies play?
Partnership was key in enabling the government to come through and deliver on the census. This was achieved through working groups. Partners also played important roles in supporting the development of the questionnaire through technical assistance and provision of experts to compliment our capacity to do the work. Given that the conditions we are working in are quite challenging, however, it would have been good to have a technical working group of partner organisations throughout the process, including the final analysis of the data.