Almost all countries in the world carry out a census of population and housing. According to the United Nations only a handful of countries did not do so during the course of the UN’s World Census Programme 2005-2014, and the aim is to reduce that number further in the next ten-year programme that is being launched this year. But just carrying out a census, per se, is not enough; in order to strive for a high degree of harmonisation of definitions, concepts and classifications between international censuses, the UN periodically prepares a set of Principles and Recommendations on how countries should carry out the decennial census in order to ensure comparability of statistical outputs. The latest revision to these Principles and Recommendation were approved by the UN Statistical Commission at its 46th Session in New York in March. 

Of course, for some countries the census is a long-standing institution (the first British census, for example, was taken in 1801, and in the USA as early as 1790), and perhaps little guidance is now needed in order for national statistical offices in these countries to regularly carry out the enumeration and data processing, while for others the whole operation is a much more recently adopted process. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), for example, the (now almost democratically elected) Government there has just carried out the first census in over 30 years. In so doing it has sought the assistance of several international agencies as both advisors and sponsors.

In particular, a team of international experts (including your blogger) supported by the United Nations World Population Fund (UNFPA) is acting as technical advisors to ensure that internationally accepted methodologies, practices and procedures are adopted in the 2014 census. Appointed in 2012 the so called International Technical Advisory Board (ITAB) meets in the Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw every six months to discuss and advise on timely issues which have ranged from questionnaire design, publicity, field staff training, and dissemination strategy to such technical matters as the coding of occupation and ethnicity data and tabulation design. ITAB plays a key role as an independent monitor of the 2014 census process, so vital where several elements of the census are largely funded by external donors (including the UK’s Department for International Development) who may have concerns about the coverage, quality and credibility of the results, and who wish to be assured that their investments are justified.

During the field operation phase of the census (in the first two weeks of April last year) ITAB members took part in an observation mission in selected enumeration districts in each of the 12 states/regions in order to report on, but not to interfere in, the enumeration and data collection activities, which were carried out entirely by doorstep interviews.

Overall, the teams of observers visited some 121 selected townships (over a third of the total number), 901 Enumeration Areas (1 per cent of the total number), and witnessed 2,193 interviews (2,177 fully complete interviews, 16 partially completed). This sample was one of the biggest ever developed for such a census observation.Each team of observers was supported by a dedicated National Programme Officer at the UNFPA, to arrange all logistical matters and to ease the daily organisation of the observation in the field.

It is important to note that the observation mission was not intended to be a judgmental exercise, neither was it a monitoring nor an auditing assignment. Indeed, the point of this mission was to collect objective and factual information on the way the enumeration was conducted in the field, in order to understand the challenges and successes of the data collection phase of the census.

The specific objectives of the observation mission were:

  • to observe objectively the census in a selected number of townships and enumeration areas against international standards and national legislation;
  • to increase the credibility and transparency of the census process;
  • to provide regular feedback to the Government during census enumeration; and
  • to document lessons learned and good practices for building capacity in future censuses.

The Observation Mission, although based on a methodology already tested in several countries, was specifically designed for the Myanmar census. Observers were trained on precise tools that they would use to collect data during the enumeration, and conducted their respective assignments in total independence, but with the necessary help of personnel from the Ministry of Immigration and Population in their appointed observation areas.

The basic operational rules of the Mission were that the observers:

  • would act as neutral witnesses of the enumeration process and would not be involved in the census process in any way;
  • were instructed not to interfere with the enumeration, even if they observed problems or inconsistencies in the conduct of the enumeration;
  • were not entitled to offer an opinion about anything related to the enumeration, including matters of politics, religion or any other subject; and
  • were instructed not to respond to any media questions or give interviews related to their assignment, nor to disclose any information on their observation to any third party.

The observers looked, in particular, at the following aspects of the census:

  • the security of the storage facilities, organisation, advocacy and publicity material at the State/ Regional/Township Offices;
  • the accessibility of Enumeration Areas in the Townships;
  • the adequacy of enumeration materials and equipment in the field;
  • the enumerators’ proficiency in data collection and languages;
  • the attitude of the population towards the census, recording of specific populations and minorities;
  • challenges encountered and good practices adopted; and
  • the potential for, or evidence of, fraud or manipulation of the information collected.

Overall, the observation team considered that, despite the size and spread of this mission throughout the country and the location of enumeration areas in some very remote regions, the data collection in the areas visited was a success,with no major operational problems encountered, with exception of those areas inhabited by “Rohingyas/Bengalis”, especially in Rakhine State. A report of the observation and other Census activities being supported by the UNFPA in Myanmar carried be found here.

Ian White (IntCensus: International Census Consultancy) has been involved, prior to his retirement from ONS last year, in each census since 1971. He is currently working with the UN on the preparation of a set of international recommendations for the 2021 round of European and world censuses, and well as in his role as an international expert advising on the Myanmar census. He hopes his long-awaited book on the history of the census in the UK will be published next year when he finds a new publisher.


Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the MRS Census and Geodemographic Group unless otherwise specifically stated.


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