October 20th – World Statistics Day.
In development policy if something cannot be measured it doesn’t count. As a development professional I am frequently asked how many indigenous peoples and African descendants live in the region. A short answer, based on recent estimates, is that they represent up to 40% of the population. However, the issue is more complex, and shows how important is to improve the quality of our regional statistics.
In Latin America 14 of 18 countries ask a racial or ethnic self-identification question in the household survey, and 13 do so in the census. But this seemingly easy calculation frequently leads to more questions than answers.
The household survey, the standard measurement for development indicators, are not representative for racial or ethnic populations in many countries. We see this phenomenon firsthand when we scale them up for national estimates, and frequently come up with figures lower than those in the census. This is why censuses are frequently a better tool, even when they are more outdated. They require going door-to-door which becomes complicated and costly when surveying remote regions where indigenous and traditional peoples live.
We therefore need to think of other alternatives to make sure that the most vulnerable citizens in the region are counted. Here are 5 recommendations to consider:
- Use of innovation and technology to enable data to be collected electronically. Racial and ethnic statistics represent a ripe opportunity for new technologies such as cell phones for high-frequency or proxy surveys, and new estimation methods that take advantage of advances in big data. Thinking about data in a more entrepreneurial way could even lead to the use of exercises such as hackathons to stimulate innovation.
- Support and enable researchers to identify spikes due to population shifts. The number of demography departments in the region has reached historic lows and most technical staff is exclusively trained in statistics or economics, with limited exposure to demography. Recently in Chile, for example, the self-identification rates for ethnic populations has been rising, which is a factor of rising self-identification, not increases in birth rates. Understanding these trends is helpful for designing development programs, and better training can also improve the sampling processes.
- Cross-referencing local data sources to identify potential errors or gaps. In Colombia, in order to access conditional cash transfer programs indigenous governments must conduct their own census reports. They are used for social programs, but are not shared with the statistics institute, although they could be a good source of information to identify potential errors or gaps that require additional attention in future official household surveys or census exercises.
- Continue to expand access to data and make it a policy priority. Official statistics are not always compatible, but improving the usability of data statistics institutes can create consumers that will help demand higher quality data over time. In Brazil, a system designed by the government with the IDB utilizes information from different databases to create policy indicators that can be monitored at the federal and local level and tracks these indicators on rural development (quilombolos) and violence prevention for youth-at-risk.
- Oversampling in situations where there are policy interests. Sometimes it makes sense to get a snapshot of current conditions when you are designing new policies, this requires oversampling that can inform future surveys. In Peru, the government with support from the IDB and GRADE conducted an in-depth analysis of living conditions in eight regions in order to design a national plan.
On the World Statistics Day, let´s remember that when official data underestimates levels of poverty and exclusion, indigenous peoples, African descendants and many of the poorest of the poor are not being contemplated in policy decisions. That´s why understanding the determinants and manifestations of poverty is a high priority for donors and governments, and improving funding for household surveys and the census are important steps for making sure that all citizens count in the process.