Monday, August 31, 2009

Count should have data on place of ‘usual residence’

Sunday Nation 30 August 2009

This past week, over a hundred thousand enumerators have criss-crossed the country in an effort to establish just how many people there are in this country.

There does not seem to have been any serious problem with the census itself, and all indications so far are that any reported hitches in the process have not significantly affected its integrity.

Indeed, even the emotive issue of tribe seems to have been handled relatively well, with the enumerators in most cases employing tact and respect for their clients’ views. In some cases where the enumerators seemed unsure of codes for certain items on the questionnaire, they entered the data exactly as given, promising to confirm the codes later.

That said, an interesting phenomenon was observed in many urban centres just before the census began early last week. There was a sizeable exodus of some urban dwellers to their rural homelands ostensibly in order to be “counted at home” together with their tribal kin. Many people closed shop on Monday afternoon and made a beeline for their rural homes, and the presidential declaration of a public holiday on Tuesday in fact served to facilitate this movement.

Innocuous as this phenomenon may seem, it offers a window into the mind of the ordinary Kenyan as far as the meaning of a census is concerned.

It would seem that many treat the census in much the same way as they do an election. A similar exodus occurs in this country on the eve of any election, and many city-dwellers are registered to vote in their rural areas.

The “being counted at home” mentality therefore indicates clearly that as a nation we are unaware of the true value of a census as a planning tool, and are more preoccupied with perpetuating our ethnicised politics. In this sense, therefore, we lose the right to harangue our leadership about nepotism, tribalism and all other “isms” that continue to drag the country away from its development goals.

Statisticians have told us that the role of the census is to provide data that is crucial for planning and resource allocation. The data will be used to determine infrastructural needs, health facilities, education and other services. This being the case, the unit of planning will not only be based on raw numbers, but also on geographical dispersal of the population.

Presumably, these services will be concentrated in areas with greater populations than those that are sparsely populated.

Unfortunately, we also know that when the numbers are released later this year or some time next year, many will hold their collective breaths for the ethnic composition of our population and start making plans for new ethno-political alliances in order to win the next General Election.

In the absence of clear tribe data, others will use a proxy such as provincial and district figures for political bargaining, always assuming ethnic and political homogeneity in these provinces and districts.

Rushing to our rural homes for the census, and even for an election, only serves the interests of our political elite, and we should not raise a finger when they use the numbers arising from census and voter registration data to trade for political positions. Such use is indeed more appropriate than any planning use the data may be put to.

Due to the census and election “migrations”, the data on population densities is inaccurate and of little use for decision-making purposes. For instance, a health centre may be sited in some rural area due to the reported large numbers of people in the area when, in fact, majority of the reported “residents” only show up during public holidays, elections and censuses.

Conversely, an area in Nairobi or Mombasa may be neglected due to reportedly low population figures when, in fact, it holds a huge population of “up-country” people who are never counted during the census.

Simplistically, this anomaly may be said to be responsible for the lack of accountability among our politicians and especially among the ever-fighting councillors in our urban areas during mayoral elections.

Politicians in urban areas do not owe allegiance to all the residents, while those in rural areas were installed by urbanites who are never present to hold them to account!

Several strategies may be employed by the statistics bureau if the statisticians are truly interested in accurate data for planning purposes. The most useful one, in my view, would be to redesign the questionnaires to include a question on the place of usual residence regardless of where one is found on the night of the census.

Indeed, short of banning travel in the days leading up to the census, this seems to be the only effective way that would ensure that data is captured on true population density and distribution across the entire country.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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