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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Census is voluntary but your civic responsibility

Tonight, all persons within the Republic are set to be counted. Empowered by very recent Statistics Act amendments, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics will roll out an electronic National Housing and Population Census across 47 counties for the first time. Why is it so important and what do citizens need to know about the exercise?

Since 1948, there have been eight censuses conducted mostly at ten-year intervals. The global practice is thousands of years old and predates the term census derived from the Latin word censere “to estimate”. Ancient rulers in Egypt, China and elsewhere used censuses to calculate how much taxes they could expect to collect.

Up until this week, the management of the National Housing and Population Census has been regulated by the thirteen-year-old Official Statistics Act (2006). The new amendments give the KNBS professional independence from other state agencies and ministries and guides their work within eight principles. They include, citizen’s right to public information, confidentiality of individual data and compliance with international best practises and standards including the management of digital data.

The amendments also state which types of statistics can be collected, managed and published. Introduced in February by the majority leader, the Act states that it will not limit fundamental freedoms or human rights. It includes stiff offences for lying and unauthorised information sharing.

The legislative changes are welcome in many ways. The degree of political and ethnic interference during the 2009 census almost rendered the exercise unusable and evidence-based policy-making impossible. It is not just that the census is the primary data for population numbers, it is the basis for allocating resources to counties and services to counties.

Like most aspects of our lives, the census is a human rights matter. It determines where funding for social and economic rights like education, health and housing will be allocated. This census may change 27 electoral constituencies that do not as yet numerically qualify to be constituencies. Simply, if you are not counted, you literally do not count. That is why the KNBS cannot discriminate between the homeless and those with homes, citizens and refugees or between large and small ethnic groups.

Identity based discrimination has occurred in Northern Ireland to reduce the number of Catholics, to profile Arab-Americans in the USA or Jews in Germany under Hitler. A controversy is brewing in the USA right now with the proposal to include a citizenship question on the next census. With the Trump Administration’s stated policy to deport all undocumented migrants en mass this is being directly challenged publicly and in court.

The Kenya 2019 census is historic in a number of ways. With more than 165,000 tablets being used, it is the first time that electronic data collection will happen in Africa on this scale. At Kshs 18.5 billion, it is also the most expensive census we have conducted. Lastly, it is the first time that the third gender – intersex persons - will be recorded.

Historic notwithstanding, our own census may have its own controversy. At least three new questions may have been sneaked into the 63 questions you and I will be asked tonight. Did you register for huduma namba? Do you have a national identity card or passport and what is the number? Taken with the global positioning software that the enumerators are using, it may be possible to link your answers with your household location and your identity/passport number.

What does this mean for minorities at risk, undocumented workers, refugees and inter-sex persons who will be counted for the very first time in Kenyan history? How does this affect the principle of confidentiality and anonymity in the Amendments? In April, the court ruled that the huduma namba exercise must not collect applicants GPS locations. By designing the census in this way, has the Government effectively ignored this preliminary ruling?

Both individual and constituency data protection and safety is critical. We now know that a bill can be introduced, debated and approved by the National Assembly within six months, can the same be done with the Data Protection Act if these initiatives are in good faith.

On their part, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics are adamant that encryption and the scale of data does not allow for individual information analysis or our locations to be accessed. Ultimately, the census is a voluntary exercise. Participating in the census is also a civic responsibility and must be encouraged. I leave it to you, the reader, to answer all or some of the questions based on your conscience and judgement.

First published Saturday Standard, August 24, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group


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