The population and housing census is among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises a nation can undertake. It requires careful planning, resourcing and implementation – from mapping an entire country, mobilizing and training large numbers of enumerators, and conducting major public awareness campaigns, to canvassing all households, carefully monitoring census activities, and analyzing, disseminating and using the resulting data.

A census involves the complete enumeration of the population in a country, territory or area, and should be conducted at least once every 10 years. It generates a wealth of data, including numbers of people, their spatial distribution, age and sex structure, as well as their living conditions and other key socioeconomic characteristics. These data are critical for good governance, policy formulation, development planning, crisis prevention, mitigation and response, social welfare programmes and business market analyses. UNFPA provides technical and financial support to ensure that censuses are of high quality, uphold international principles and standards, and produce data that are widely disseminated and utilized for development.

Topic summary

2020 Census Round

The 2020 census round, which runs from 2015 to 2024, takes place against a changing global landscape. As countries around the world pursue a range of new global commitments, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, there is growing demand for disaggregated data at all levels. Censuses are also evolving to adopt new technologies, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and handheld devices, and use of data from administrative registers (such as birth, marriage and death registers, address registers, employment registers etc.) for census purposes. These shifts are accompanied by increasing demands to modernize national statistical systems and strengthen capacities.

Additionally, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused extensive disruptions and delays of census projects as countries have been forced to adapt to the pandemic context and implement mitigating measures to reduce further spread and impacts.

How is the information used?

Today, with major demographic shifts occurring and increased attention on international development, accurate and timely data are more important than ever. The unique advantage of the census is that it represents the entire statistical universe, down to the smallest geographical/ administrative area, of a country or region. This information is required for evidence-based decision-making in a variety of settings, including the design and monitoring of policies and programs.

Often, a national census is the only source of information for identifying forms of social, demographic or economic exclusion – such as inequalities by geographic location, race, ethnicity, religion or other characteristics. The census also provides data on disadvantaged regions and vulnerable groups, such as the poor, the old, people living with disabilities, migrants, and adolescent and young girls. Up to 107 of the 231 unique indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals require population data for monitoring, and censuses are a key source. Censuses also provide the basis for deriving samples of households for national surveys and the production of granular baseline population data, disaggregated by age and sex that support operations and decision-making in the initial response to a humanitarian emergency (Common Operational Datasets on Population Statistics (COD-PS)).

What are the challenges?

With censuses typically conducted every decade, many national statistics offices face capacity challenges, as it may be hard to retain expertise between census rounds. Furthermore, the emergence of new technologies and methodologies often requires the acquisition of new skills, tools, and development of relevant expertise and capacity.

Census taking, by virtue of its scale, is a costly exercise that needs careful budgeting and planning and timely resource mobilization. Frequently, censuses are postponed due to lack of funding or delayed release of funds. Creating partnerships with major stakeholders, including development partners, civil society and the private sector, is crucial for the successful implementation and continuity of censuses.

Conflict and instability in many countries pose additional challenges that make census enumeration impossible in some areas. In highly stressed countries and fragile settings, recent and reliable demographic data can often be missing or incomplete, as traditional censuses may not be possible due to inaccessibility or security concerns. Also, large population displacements may quickly render existing information outdated. In these contexts, UNFPA can provide support to generate modelled population estimates to fill data gaps.

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UNFPA in action

Since its inception, one of UNFPA’s core mandates has been to strengthen national census capacity to collect, process, analyze, disseminate and use census data for development. In the 2020 census round, UNFPA’s key areas of support include:

  • Providing technical support. UNFPA provides Census Technical Advisers, GIS and data processing experts, operations support, and technical assistance.
  • Generating and sharing knowledge:
  • Promoting dissemination and open access to census data. UNFPA has launched the Population Data Portal – an interactive, web-based data platform that integrates quantitative and geospatial data, including census data, with in-built dynamic analytic functions.
  • Leveraging institutional partnerships. UNFPA has established strategic global, regional and national partnerships to enable more effective and efficient census support. These include partnerships with the UN Statistics Division, the US Census Bureau, the World Bank, Statistics Korea, the GRID3 initiative, and the University of Southampton (WorldPop). ?
  • Mobilizing resources for censuses. UNFPA supports resource mobilization at country, regional and global levels. In March 2020, UNFPA launched the Population Data Thematic Fund to support census modernization, capacity strengthening, and improved access to census data as a public good. The Thematic Fund is being updated to take into account the impact of COVID-19 on the global census programme.??

UNFPA’s presence in 155 countries, support from six regional offices, and inter-divisional teams at the HQ level help to ensure coordinated support to the 2020 census round.

Last updated 30 June 2022.

Census in the coming years

A census is among the most complex and massive peacetime exercises that a nation undertakes. During the years 2018-2021, more than 150 countries and territories are scheduled to conduct a census. UNFPA provides technical support to developing countries during all stages of a national census to ensure that everyone is counted and accounted for in the pursuit of sustainable development?. ?

2018 2019 2020 2021
2018: 20 countries scheduled for census
The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.

A dispute exists between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).
The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.