Skip to main content

A tool for development

Carlos Jarque is manager of the IDB’s Sustainable Development Department. A Mexican citizen, Mr. Jarque holds a doctorate in economics and was Social Development Minister during President Ernesto Zedillo’s administration. He has also served as secretary of Mexico’s National Development Plan, president of the Mexican Statistics, Geography, and Information Technology Bureau, and chairman of the Interministerial Committee on Public Finance. From 1987 to 1989, Mr. Jarque was the director of the International Statistics Institute, becoming the first non-European to hold that position since the institute’s founding in 1885.

IDBAmérica: How important are censuses today, especially in Latin America?

Censuses have become powerful development tools in the 21st century. Thanks to new technologies, they are no longer mere agglomerations of numbers but rather are highly detailed and very useful demographic x-rays. Governments use them to devise strategies for resource allocation and services, and to determine representation in the legislature. Businesses use them to identify markets. And the academic world uses them in its research.

IDBAmérica: What is the status of censuses in Latin America?

There is quite a broad range here, from countries who have not conducted a census in many years to those who conduct them every five years. Some cover a whole gamut of data and have significant processing capacity; others are much more limited. There are considerable differences.

This is a very challenging situation in that censuses are the backbone of today’s information systems. Not only are they used to track countries’ socioeconomic conditions, but they also provide the input for supplementary statistical analyses. These analyses translate the census "snapshot" into a "movie" that tracks the countries’ situation in real time: population distribution and density, internal and external migration, education and employment levels, output, investment, trade, and many other key data for a society.

Without a good census it is impossible to conduct genuine analyses to support a development strategy. Improving this area is one of the region’s core objectives.

IDBAmérica: Are Latin Americans aware of the importance of census information? Do people cooperate willingly with the process?

Latin Americans are normally quite willing to cooperate in this respect. Historically, they have been very good about participating in the census. Today, people cooperate because they know the information is useful for their immediate needs and that it serves a purpose so that future generations can analyze the past.

IDBAmérica: Mexico is a typical example of a country with a large indigenous population. As an expert in this area, could you explain to our readers how Mexico’s censuses have approached this topic?

In Mexico, the issue of indigenous groups is an important topic. It is also cause for concern given the conditions in which much of this population lives: compared with the national averages, illiteracy rates are four times higher, school attendance is 50 percent lower, service delivery is four times lower, and infant mortality is twice as high. And indigenous groups represent 10 percent of the Mexican population. In the 1990s, the government reformed and modernized its census information systems and this resulted in a number of new projects. Specifically, the 2000 census included several new questions in areas such as culture, how individuals identify themselves, how they organize, what crafts they produce, how they use their time, and other issues. This information helped to give us an accurate and detailed picture of our indigenous people and to adjust public policy strategies accordingly.

IDBAmérica: Is it true that population groups that remain invisible in the census are also excluded from the national agenda?

It is crucial that remote communities be reached. Today, new technologies such as satellite imaging and aerophotography make it possible to locate even the most remote communities. This is fundamental so that no one is excluded from the census or from programs.

For example, in Mexico a group of residents from an indigenous community used to come down from the hills every now and then to the seat of local government to ask for a school, another time for a road, another time a hospital, and gradually they got what they needed. However, other communities that are just as needy–if not more so–haven’t been able to make it to the town because they are too poor, or they have no way to get their requests to the authorities.

The census puts everyone on an equal footing by giving everyone a voice. Through the census, countries can and should identify the entire population, without excluding anyone, and then meet their citizens’ needs on an equitable basis.

Jump back to top