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Afghanistan: Government Prepares Population Estimates Needed To Create Parliament

An accurate count of Afghanistan's population is needed to form the parliament The Central Statistics Office in Kabul says it has nearly completed an initial estimate of provincial populations across Afghanistan. The study creates the framework for a complete census in the future. The pre-census estimates also will be used to determine the number of representatives that each province will send to the new parliament being created by elections scheduled for April. The exercise illustrates difficulties faced by those trying to create a representative legislature in a war-torn country where precise population figures are unknown. A complete census -- which will require house-to-house interviews by thousands of field researchers -- has not yet begun and is not expected to be finished until next year at the earliest.

Prague, 19 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The head of Afghanistan's Central Statistics Office says the most comprehensive population estimate in the country since 1979 is nearing completion.

Ajmal Watanyar tells RFE/RL that statistically-based estimates are missing only for some of the southern Afghan provinces where clashes continue between Taliban fighters and U.S.-led coalition forces:

"We have accomplished our work in 30 provinces of Afghanistan and our work is continuing in three provinces. They are Helmand, Daikondi, and Paktika. The only province that is left is Zabol Province and we are planning to go there soon [to start our work]."
"Unfortunately, there won't be a full census prior to the parliamentary election."

The pre-census data generated by the Watanyar's office is based on estimates of the number of households in each province.

Yanming Lin is the Asia area director for the United Nations Population Fund, which is assisting Kabul's attempts to conduct a complete census. "What has nearly been completed is an exercise called a 'Household Listing' exercise," he said. "So, of course, it is not a door-to-door exercise. It is different from a census. A household listing is done by some [statistical] sampling rather than a full census. A population housing census is quite different. The full census, as far as we know, has not started yet."

Lin says it remains unclear when thousands of census workers -- known as enumerators -- will begin household interviews across the country:

"There are a lot of factors that would determine the day when the actual enumeration starts to takes place. We are trying to mobilize resources, first of all. And we are trying to guarantee that the technical expertise is there first. And we want to make sure that the whole exercise, once it is undertaken, becomes a success. For a census, the enumeration workers will have to visit the households door-to-door. We have to map out the census first. We have to find out how many households are easily accessible. And there are a lot of factors that will determine the number of enumerators that will be required."

Andrew Wilder is the Kabul-based director of an election monitoring group called the Afghan Research and Evaluation
Unit. "Unfortunately, there won't be a full census prior to the parliamentary election," he said. "But it has been a fairly comprehensive pre-census exercise -- based on household enumeration -- which has generated new figures. And so those figures will be used for the apportioning of seats for parliamentary elections by province."

Wilder says a complete census will help those who plan projects for reconstruction and development: "It's extremely important to try to get a much more accurate sense than we currently have about what the actual population of Afghanistan is. There hasn't really been a reliable census since the 1970s. The 1979 [census] was the last effort but that was incomplete. And a lot of the population figures since then have been predictions [based] on that. Trying to determine what education rates are, maternal mortality rates, all these kind of figures [is very difficult] if you don't have a baseline data for population. So for planning purposes [and projects related to reconstruction], it is extremely important."

Wilder described the existing information on Afghanistan's population as "very broad generalizations and guesswork."

"We don't have, for example, urbanization rates," he said. "We don't have a good sense of what the population of Kabul city is now. Is it two-and-a-half million? Is it three-and-a-half million? In terms of refugee returnee figures, what impact is that having on population figures? Trying to determine [school] enrollment rates for children, literacy rates, health indicators, it is essential to have good baseline population data that we can measure the progress against. And we currently don't really have that except for very broad generalizations and guesswork."

Wilder said he will not be surprised to see controversy generated in Afghanistan over the pre-census household listing exercise or the results of a future census: "Whatever is done during censuses anywhere in the world is controversial. And Afghanistan will certainly not be an exception -- especially in such an ethnically polarized society that we have now. I think whatever results anyone projects, there will be disagreements from various quarters."

Some Afghan residents say they are concerned they were not interviewed for the initial study. But UN and Afghan officials say that is the result of a misunderstanding about the difference between pre-census estimates and the full census that has yet to begin.

(Sultan Sarwar of RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)