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Why Ubos deserves praise for the 2024 census

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Mr Muniini K. Mulera

Dear Tingasiga:

I salute the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) for effectively responding to the mishaps and challenges that sabotaged the timeline for completion of the enumeration phase of the 2024 census. I am sure many opportunities for improvement have been identified, and solutions will be developed to ensure a more efficient census in 2034. 

    Criticism of Ubos for the rocky start to the enumeration was unfair because it appeared to ignore the suboptimal infrastructure required by the exercise. First, the computer-assisted personal interview (CAPI), which was the primary mode of enumeration, required a solid and reliable internet coverage and electricity supply throughout the country. Without these, CAPI became a hindrance. Switching to pen-and-paper-based interview, administered by an enumerator, was an effective backup measure, but it added to the delay that was as frustrating to the people waiting to be counted as it was to the enumerators and staff of Ubos. 

    Second, a poor road network in many areas impeded travel and timely access to households which were the primary subject of the exercise. What roads and paths existed in many areas, especially the mountainous regions, were made nearly impassable by rains and floods. 

   Third, delayed payment of stipends to enumerators for the training phase of the exercise caused anxiety, with a few threatening to abandon their work. Their anxiety was understandable. Many citizens distrust the government’s promise to meet its obligations in a timely manner. 

    Notwithstanding these challenges, Ubos rectified what it could, and gathered the data that we hope will be sufficient to provide a realistic picture of Uganda’s population in 2024. This should prove invaluable to researchers, policymakers, service providers, investors, and other interested parties.     

     There are two key areas that Ubos should examine. First, is Uganda prepared for digital technology as its primary mode of collection of census data? Whereas the digital modality is more efficient, more comprehensive, and faster than the old-fashioned paper questionnaires, it demands the above infrastructure, and a fool-proof, seamlessly integrated internet and communication technology, managed and used by very well-trained Ubos staff and enumerators. 

     It seems to me that the introduction of CAPI should have been done alongside old-style pen-and-paper data gathering. A phased transition to CAPI over the next two census cycles might be worth considering. 

     Interestingly, Canada, whose digital technology penetration is well ahead of Uganda’s, still offers its residents the option of responding to the census questions either online or with pen-and-paper. The difference is that Statistics Canada, the federal agency that is responsible for the national census, mails questionnaires to every household several weeks before Census Night. The questionnaire is mailed with a self-addressed envelope that does not require a postage stamp. 

    That questionnaire includes a website link and a unique password that enables one to input the answers online. If one prefers, one completes the paper questionnaire and mails it back to Statistics Canada. Completion of the questionnaire on paper or online is a legal requirement. Failure to do so may result in a fine of up to $500 (five hundred dollars.). There was a 98 percent overall response rate during the last Canadian census in 2021, in which 84.1 percent responded online. Given that the Canadian census is conducted every five years, one expects full transition to internet-based census data gathering by the year 2031. However, Canada will almost certainly retain the analog option for the computer/internet hesitant population.  

    This system works in Canada because of (1) the high literacy rate, (2) the efficient snail mail service, (3) the high penetration of reliable and fast internet and communication technology throughout the country, (4) the public’s high recognition of the critical importance of an accurate national census, and (4) a well-funded, prioritized national census program that enables Statistics Canada to prepare and execute its mandate with minimal difficulty. 

     Second, Ubos should consider strategies for training and readiness of the district census officers, enumeration area supervisors and the enumerators, at least twelve months before Census Night. The 2024 census was marred by missing cartographic information about a few enumeration areas, clashes between local council leaders over boundaries, and some enumerators having problems logging into the digital system. Multiple pilot censuses during the twenty-four months before Census Night would mitigate the problems that were due to lack of readiness. Whereas such exercises would increase the budget of Ubos, money should be redirected from our luxury lifestyle items to support this essential component of sustainable development. 

   Things have changed a lot since Uganda’s first post-independence population census on August 18, 1969, in which I was privileged to serve as an enumerator in my parish of Mparo, Rwamucuucu, Rukiga County, Kigezi District. My brother and I were trained and assigned to enumerate our Butongole (a group of villages). The prevailing peace and personal safety in most of Uganda enabled a night-time exercise. 

     Accompanied and supervised by Mr. Burara, our friendly Mutongole Chief, we performed our duty with ease, partly because we already knew the answers of most family heads to the set questions. That is how small the population was. However, we were under very strict instructions not to correct the answers provided, even when we knew that the head of the household was not revealing certain truths. 

     Several men gave us incorrect numbers of their children, and their domestic animals, not out of dishonesty, but because of superstition. There was a belief that counting one’s children or animals would cause death of one of the counted beings. We duly entered the given numbers, suppressed our smiles and laughter, and moved on to the next questions. I do not recall how much, if any, we were paid for our efforts, but I am certain that we would have done the job without pay. We already enjoyed first class education at minimal cost, and state-of the art-health care at no cost. We knew we had a stake in Uganda, and a future that guaranteed us employment opportunities upon completion of our education. So, enumerating Ugandans was a patriotic duty, an honour and a boost to one’s self esteem. 

    When the official report informed us that there were just over 10 million people in Uganda, one felt proud that one had contributed to that important exercise. It is a feeling that today’s enumerators should also enjoy, even as they rightly demand their pay from the government.

Mulera is a medical doctor.