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A high-stakes numbers game

After nine years of intensive preparations, Bolivia is finalizing plans to conduct its 2001 Population and Housing Census. On September 5, 170,000 census workers, including 150,000 volunteers, will fan out across the country to interview their fellow citizens and get the data that will then be used to paint an exacting portrait of contemporary Bolivia.

The results obtained from this census will be more crucial for the country than ever before. Profound changes in the geographical distribution of the population are expected due to the huge waves of migrants from the countryside that have flooded cities over the past 10 years. These changes will in turn affect the allocation of new financial resources that Bolivia is beginning to receive under the debt relief program known as the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, or HIPC II.

Through a process of national dialogue that began last year, representatives of all sectors of Bolivian society decided that the resources released under HIPC II should be distributed on the basis of two indicators: population and poverty rate. Luis Pereyra, director of the 2001 census, said "the information obtained will be key for the distribution of resources from central government revenue-sharing under the Citizen Participation Act and from debt relief under the HIPC Initiative." Both actions are crucial for the country’s economic development, he added.

Quality information. The indicators used in the present census were selected after numerous consultations with civil society.

"Unfortunately, we could not include all the requests made by all the sectors, given the time constraints," said Pereyra. "We only have 30 minutes to survey each household. We had a bad experience in 1992 when a significant number of indicators were included and then nobody even asked for any of that information, not even the people who had suggested that it be included. So this year we want to make sure our census form only has specific, clearly defined questions," he said.

For this new census, the National Statistics Agency (INE) has eliminated many indicators, such as religion, identification number, and general mortality, mainly because of the low quality of the results obtained in the 1992 census. "There is a lot of information that can be better obtained through the annual surveys conducted by the INE," said Pereyra. "The census is an instrument that, like any other one, has its virtues and its limitations. We cannot include everything because of quality issues."

The new census also changed its questions regarding ethnicity. "The former census asked, ‘What ethnic group do you belong to?’ and the results were very ambiguous," said Pereyra. "For various reasons, many people from one ethnic background identify with another group or with none at all. So in this census we have replaced that question with one about native language. Knowing what language people learned first, it will be much easier to identify the ethnic group to which they belong. Choices include Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, Spanish, and other indigenous or foreign languages."

The census also includes information required by agreements established through the MERCOSUR customs union, which stipulates that member countries should gather semistandardized data about their populations.

The IDB and the census. The 2001 census will cost $12 million, of which the IDB is financing $7.4 million. The Bolivian government has provided the rest, mainly for the preparatory portion of the project.

The Bolivian census, the first the IDB has financed, has sparked interest in other countries that see accurate census information as an indispensable tool for ensuring the equitable distribution of public finances and national resources. During the last two years the Bank has helped to pay for censuses in Paraguay, Honduras and Ecuador, and several other IDB member countries have requested assistance in this area.

According to IDB experts, a census project requires flexibility and close coordination and communication between the executing agency and the financial institution. Given the very short execution period, both parties must make a special effort to achieve the objectives. The experience in Bolivia is expected to serve as a guide for similar projects in other countries in Latin America.

Urban households are expected to be surveyed in one day and more remote rural households in three days. The day before the census, the census-takers will conduct a reconnaissance survey of the households in their respective areas in order to identify them all.

The volunteers have received intensive training over the past year, both in the management of census-taking tools and in the detection of irregularities in the information obtained from the households surveyed. Pereyra notes that "the census-takers are key components of the census because all the census preparation and planning is based on their work. We have selected volunteers from all the localities to ensure that they are familiar with the area and the local people. That way, we will not intimidate the people surveyed by using outsiders who are unfamiliar with the local reality."

Preliminary data, which will be published in late 2001, will mainly concern population figures. "For the 2002 elections, we need to have clearly defined voting districts for candidates to register. This must be done by November at the latest," said Pereyra.

Cutting edge technology. The new census will incorporate important technical advances. For example, optical scanning and character recognition technology will be used to minimize errors in the census forms. In the past, entering data by hand led to a much greater level of errors, according to Pereyra.

The Bolivian project will adopt technology similar to that currently used in developed countries. "We believe that the margin of error will be minimal, compared with our experience in previous censuses," said Pereyra.

Looking ahead, Pereyra would like to see a census done every 10 years, with resources allocated by the government specifically for this purpose. But this is unlikely because of the cost, he admits. "For the next census, we would like to further improve the quality of the information in the census form and eliminate items that are less important or indicators that can be better obtained using other means of gathering information," he said.

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