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Brazil Aims for World’s “Most Perfect” Population Census

Thalif Deen

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 23 2010 (IPS) - Come Dec. 31, about 68 countries are expected to complete the arduous task of taking an accurate head count of the number of people living within their geographical borders.

Some 240,000 census workers are surveying 58 million households in 5,565 municipalities. Credit: Courtesy of IBGE

Some 240,000 census workers are surveying 58 million households in 5,565 municipalities. Credit: Courtesy of IBGE

The demographic census, which traditionally takes place every 10 years in different countries in different time frames, will this year cover nearly half the world’s population of 6.7 billion people.

The countries undertaking the 2010 census include the United States, Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Cape Verde, Finland, Argentina, Bolivia and Zambia, among others.

But Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country and the biggest in South America, has stolen a march over most others by conducting its first-ever paperless, all-digital fully-computerised nationwide census.

The Brazilians say their 2010 Census, which began Aug. 1, will be “the most accurate, comprehensive and technologically sophisticated undertaking – since the country’s first count in 1872 – and arguably in world history.”

At least four other countries, Oman, Cape Verde, Uruguay and Colombia, have gone all-digital, according to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

But in magnitude and geographical reach, the Brazilian census is expected to be demographically formidable – judging by the country’s current population of 194.3 million spread across a territory of some 8.5 million kms.

The statistics are staggering: 58 million households and 5,565 municipalities to be surveyed; 240,000 persons earmarked for census-taking and logistical support; 225,000 hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs) and notebooks equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers; and about 8,400 laptop computers.

The census takers will transmit the data via the PDA device to over 7,000 regional data collection centres across the country.

Continuing its passion for the digital, Brazil also provides the option of filling out the census questionnaire via the internet.

But this is valid only after a visit by the census-taker who will personally provide a sealed envelope with a code giving access to the questionnaire on a secure website. The total cost of the four-month-long census is estimated at over 900 million dollars and the preliminary figures are expected to be released Nov. 27. The initial preparations began in 2007 with pilot test runs in 2009. The final results will be released in 2011.

Brazil’s first census in 1872 took a head count of 10.1 million compared with the last census in 2000 when the country’s population reached 169.8 million.

Eduardo Pereira Nunes, president of the national Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), is confident that Brazil’s groundbreaking census will deliver a comprehensive picture of the country’s population and its socio-economic characteristics.

“The 2010 census will show a country with a higher schooling rate, a wide digital inclusion, an older population, a higher income level, a larger access to consumption products, new family structures and a growing presence of women in the workplace and in higher education,” he predicts.

UNFPA’s Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid has created a ‘Special Initiative on Census’ leading the U.N.’s efforts to support developing and low-income countries to conduct their 2010 censuses.

“No country fails to carry out a population and housing census during the 2010 census round due to financial constraints or to lack of technical capacity,” says UNFPA.

The U.N. agency is providing technical support to a number of developing nations conducting their census, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, North Korea, Timor-Leste, Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine and Iraq.

But the Brazilians, who have developed their own software, are reaching out and helping other countries, including Angola, Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe.

Omar Gharzeddine of UNFPA, which closely monitors population trends worldwide, told IPS that population and housing censuses are essential for governments to make informed decisions in response to their population challenges and trends.

“They are the primary source of information about the number, characteristics and needs of a given population,” he said.

And they allow governments to take stock of the most important assets of their countries – their human capital – and suggest what investments are required to improve it, he added.

Keeping with current trends, Brazil’s electronic census includes questions relating to the use of electric energy meters, mobile phones, internet access, international migration and same sex spouses.

The census will also reach out to the remotest parts of the country, mostly accessible only by unpaved roads, and to communities housing largely minority groups and indigenous peoples.

The census-takers will also visit penitentiaries, military outposts, asylums, orphanages, convents, hospitals, motels and camp sites in remote jungles.

This will be Brazil’s 12th census since 1872 in a country with a 510-year history.

In a country with a diverse cultural and racial mix, race has been categorised as either “white, black, yellow, mulatto or indigenous.” The Brazilians are mostly of Portuguese or African descent.

Brazil’s population includes about six million European and Asian immigrants, the latter mostly from Japan. Currently, Brazil has the largest single population of Japanese outside of Japan.

Asked whether Brazil is aiming at “the world’s most perfect census”, Romualdo Rezende, the census coordinator for the state of Rio de Janeiro, told IPS: “We hope so.”

In Rio alone, he said, there are 4.8 million households and a population of over 16 million people.

The census will also reach out to Rocinha, once considered one of the biggest crime-infested slums in the city but located in one of the richest areas of Rio.

According to Brazilian law, there is a penalty for refusing to answer questions.

Any “non-rendering of information within the established deadline” could result in a fine 10 times Brazil’s minimum wage. And the payment of the fine “does not exempt the transgressor from the obligation of rendering the information.”

Asked why Brazil, doesn’t declare a national holiday to facilitate a one-day census, as some countries do, Rezende said with light-hearted humour: “If they declare a national holiday, nobody will be at home. They will all be at the beach.”

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