Afghanistan: New census key to progress

Authorities hope accurate demographic data will help them rebuild their war-ravaged country.
By Abasin in Kabul (ARR No. 45, 24-Jan-03)

A census is underway in Afghanistan to clear up years of uncertainty over the size of the population.

For decades, estimates of the number of inhabitants have ranged from 16 million to 28 million, which has made it difficult for the authorities to prioritise spending and rebuilding projects.

Information gathered during the last poll, carried out more than twenty years ago, is considered to be of little use as war had turned much of the country into a no-go area at the time.

"The 1979 data was incomplete because the mujahedin were fighting against the Russians and their puppet government, and the census groups could not go to the regions that were controlled by the former," Mohammad Ali Watan Yar, head of the Central Statistics Department, told IWPR.

The new census was ordered by President Hamed Karzai in July 2002 following the Bonn agreement on the future of the country, which stated that accurate statistics were needed in order to plan the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Work began this month when 50 trained officials, including staff from the United Nations Population Fund, headed to the north-west province of Kunduz.

Anyone who has lived in one place for six months and plans to stay there for a further half year will be included, and have details of their age, sex and social and economic status noted.

Some 22,000 specially-trained workers will be involved in gathering the data during a five-year programme, expected to cost between 15 and 20 million US dollars, the bulk of which has been provided by western donors.

Its interim results are expected to aid the authorities in planning next year's elections - the first democratic polls in the country's turbulent history.

The incomplete 1979 census showed Afghanistan to have 16 million inhabitants. Yar estimates that the current figure at around 22 million, but some analysts believe that it could be just under a third higher.

One important area the census will avoid, however, will be the ethnic and linguistic make-up of the population. Rivalry between the main tribal groups was a factor in the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces in 1989.

Current estimates have the Pashtuns as the main ethnic group, followed by the Tajiks, the Hazara and the Uzbeks, representing 44, 25, 10 and eight per cent of the Afghan nation respectively.

"The census will not take account of ethnicity, race or language, for reasons of unity. We are all considered one nation," Yar said.

One of the main challenges facing the census-takers will be tracking Afghans who fled abroad or to other parts of the country during the various bouts of fighting.

Nearly two million have returned to the country since the fall of the Taleban in December 2001, but a similar number still remain in Iran with a further 1.5 million in Pakistan.

The decision on whether they return - and to what part of the country - could have a crucial bearing on plans to rebuild the shattered infrastructure and create new systems for the future. Some planners fear that the capital Kabul could see its population swell from an estimated 1.5 to 2 million to over five million within a decade.

Sayed Arif Nazif, of the ministry of reconstruction, told IWPR, "It is very important to have an accurate population census in order to accomplish reconstruction projects. As soon as we have detailed figures, we can start work."

The launch of the census has been widely welcomed by the population, who see it as a first vital step in rebuilding the country's infrastructure and economy.

Mohammad Kabir, a taxi-driver in traffic-choked Kabul, told IWPR that congestion was a big problem for everyone. "In my opinion, a detailed plan based on exact figures should be drawn up for housing, roads and traffic in the capital," he said.

Obaidullah, who runs a shop on one of the capital's busiest roads, said, "We traders face a lot of problems because of the instability of the economy. If the government is able to base its economic and social plans on accurate figures, we will all benefit."

Abasin is a journalist working in Kabul.