Census: Political Aid or Hindrance in Post-Conflict Societies? The Afghanistan case


Reflecting on the previous post referring to the test census issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is it wise for the citizens not to disclose their ethnic background? Is the reluctance to do so fuelled by the lack of trust of the authorities and/or by not having a clear understanding of how and for what purpose is the data going to be used?

Observes predict that when the fully-fledged census is conducted in April this year many will choose not to declare an ethnicity. In the last census which took place in 1991, when Bosnia-Herzegovina was still part of Yugoslavia,  thousands of people declared themselves to be ‘Martians’, ‘Penguins’ and ‘Eskimos’. Some commentators argue that in order to develop proper social policies, understanding ethnic make up is essential. Reliable data can influence political decisions on distribution of aid, regional development, supply of teachers and building projects. More importantly, it can be used to change polling districts or the make up of the parliament, which can deliver better ethnic minority representation. However, this cannot be achieved if data on ethnic minority is incomplete.

Afghanistan has also embarked on conducting census by undertaking door-to-door interviews and setting to count the Afghan population for the first time since 1979. The project is expected to take at least six years and is made possible because it doesn’t ask which ethnic group residents belong to and what language they speak at home. The rationale for this is that these questions could be used as a proxy marker for ethnicity.

Laurent Zessler, head of in Afghanistan of the UN Population Fund said that ‘This country has so many issues to address between the political process, the economy and security, why complicate it?’ Is this a convincing rationalization for not collecting this information given the importance of understanding the proportion of ethnic minority and the relevance of this information to policy making? Moreover, is it realistic and practical to wait until the country is more politically and economically stable to collect the data? Isn’t the main purpose of the census to project an image of the society and thus aid the government in creating policies that would reflect the needs of that society?

The Shared Societies Project strongly advocates better social and political inclusion of ethnic minorities and for creating political environment which encourages social cohesion. However, the complexity and sensitivity of Afghanistan’s ethnic politics prevents the collection of ethnic minorities’ data, necessary in for social policy developments. In this case, incomplete and incorrect data can be a hindrance rather then an aid.

The results from Bamiyan province showed actual population half official estimates. The province is mainly home to Hazaras, a Shia minority who have been persecuted in Sunni dominated Afghanistan and many considered the findings as another form of attack. According to Abdul Rahman Ghafoori, head of the Central Statistics Office; ‘If a politician sees that ethnic group to which he or she belongs to is less than expected, they will sometimes reject the data’.

Drawing from the Afghan experience, a decision on whether to include ethnic background and language questions needs to be made on case by case basis, taking into consideration the past and present developments of post-conflict societies.

Photos: Haris Memija/SETimes; UNHCR/J.Redden

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