Census Shutdown in Ecuador

29 Nov

Quito, Ecuador
Sunday 28 November, 2010

Today at 4.59pm the final countdown started;

5… 4… 3… 2… 1… We’re FREE!!!

After ten hours of being forcibly locked inside our hostel we were finally able to leave.

Earlier this morning Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa issued a decree that prohibited most businesses from operating and the vast majority of Ecuadorians and other visitors to the Country from leaving their houses / hotels and consuming alcohol between the hours of 7.00am and 5.00pm today. Within this time-frame land borders between Ecuador and Colombia were also closed, and all flights within Ecuador canceled. Those who disobeyed the presidential decree risked being issued a $4.00 fine and being sentenced to gaol for a period of four days.

Thankfully measures to paralyse the country did not result from any coup attempts, like the one that shook Ecuador some weeks ago. In fact it was the National Census of Population and Hosing that brought the nation to a standstill.
The shutdown order was made to ensure that this first census in a decade would be successfully completed. The Government required people to be home today to greet the more than 361,500 senior high-school students and 22,000 of their teachers who went door to door on this rainy Sunday to conduct verbal face-to-face census interviews. Notably those responsible for conducting the census interviews were not paid for their labor as this was seen as a civic duty of students and teachers. The Government did encourage people to make sure the surveyors were comfortable and well fed.

Ecuador’s key media outlets have reported that citizens were generally happy to comply with the shutdown; under 1000 people were arrested for violating the decree to stay off the streets and the booze. The Quito newspaper El Comercio reported that the police kindly told tourists who didn’t realise that a shutdown order had been issued to go back to their hotels.

I haven’t been able to work out why the census surveys which consisted of 6 pages of questions with largely multiple-choice format answers could not be delivered to houses across Ecuador earlier this month to be completed by citizens and visitors without the supervision of students and collected afterwards by workers or volunteers. This formula works for a lot of countries around the world and would have avoided the disruption caused by the census shutdown. Illiteracy in Ecuador doesn’t seem widespread enough to justify the shutdown and supervision of census survey completion, especially in the Country’s urban centres.

I don’t need to be convinced that national censuses are important sources of data that Governments and other organisations need to evaluate existing and develop new public policy initiatives. In developing countries data collected in a national census is especially crucial to fight poverty. At the moment the World Bank doesn’t even have up to date key development indicators for Ecuador.

Ecuador’s 2010 Census was an interesting document to read. An entire page of the 6 page census survey was devoted to questions about housing conditions. The census required respondents to report the quality of the roof, walls and floors of their home, the number of rooms it had and how many people lived there, and whether or not they had access to water and electricity mobile phones, computers and the internet. Answers to these questions will reveal a lot about living conditions and poverty in Ecuador.

The Census also asked respondents to identify their race. Respondents could identify with one of the following six racial categories listed; Indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorian, Black, Mulatto, Montubio, Mestizio, White or Other. The census invited those who identified as Indigenous to indicate which of the seventeen officially recognised indigenous peoples they belonged to. In the lead up to census many Indigenous organisations were encouraging Indigenous people to be proud of their heritage and identify as such in this year’s census, as in 2001 only 6.8% of that national population did so where experts estimate this figure is in reality closer to 40%. Other voices were critical of the race question, arguing that it will reinforce racial divides and racism in this rainbow nation.

I was surprised that census did not ask any questions about the value of assets people owned and their annual income. A friend made the point that this data could be collected through the Taxation Department. This may be the case, but it seems silly to me that the Government would give up this rare opportunity to map incomes and wealth across the national territory.

The Ecuadorian Government commented that they hoped the 2010 census would be the last in the country’s history, as future developments in technology and bureaucracy will render unnecessary make the need to survey the entire population one day every decade.

Ecuador would be joining a growing list of developed countries who have realised that government statisticians can mine existing databases to pull out information that a national census would usually provide. See the Economist article on the decline of old-fashioned census here.

In Canada Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government decided to get rid of the the traditional mandatory long-form census and replace it with a voluntary survey in response to the perception that the census invades privacy.

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