On World Population Day: Examining Somalia’s road towards a population and housing census

World Population Day is remembered and celebrated around the globe on July 11. Generally, the commemoration draws our attention to the urgency and importance of population issues. Population count is central to human development. Among others, it determines how many persons currently live in the country, and helps the government decide how to distribute funds and assistance to states and localities, as well as to determine how these resources could be best utilized to meet the needs of people depending on who they are, where they live and what they do.

For us in UNFPA – the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, data and demographic information is essential for understanding and improving our strategies to deliver on our objectives effectively. Over the years, UNFPA has brought to bear its core competence in issues of data for population and development, to strive to find solutions to the problems that humanity faces today.

Working along critical pathways, to accelerate the fulfilment of unmet needs for birth spacing, ending preventable maternal deaths, and ending gender-based violence and harmful practices, to create a world of infinite possibilities. These possibilities become realizable when we recognize the usefulness of population and demographic data to map and address inequalities, and harness it for crucial developmental needs.
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On an encouraging note, a wave of population and housing censuses has swept through the African continent in the last five years. In North Africa, Egypt and Algeria held population censuses in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In East Africa, Kenya did so in 2019, and Rwanda had its fifth housing and population census in 2022. In West Africa, Ghana successfully conducted its sixth population census in 2021, and in Nigeria, talks about a 2023 population census are ongoing.

In Somalia, where I currently lead UNFPA’s country programme, the Federal Government of Somalia with UNFPA’s support, has announced plans to conduct a population and housing census in November 2024. This is historic for Somalia, and the gains of seeing it through will be transformational. Remarkably, the census will be held 50 years after the country’s first and only successful census in 1974 with limited results. The census will provide urgently needed information on population size and distribution, age and sex in Somalia and help identify the population most in need of services and where they live. Moreover, obtaining accurate data is central to democratic representation, national planning, protection of minority rights and other democratization agenda. Further, as Somalia grapples with climate-related challenges and displacement, the proposed census will enhance preventive and mitigation responses from government authorities and international relief efforts.

As part of our preparations for the census, a joint UNFPA and Somali government official delegation undertook a familiarization study tour to visit to National Institute of Statistics Rwanda in Kigali a few weeks back. Led by the Minister of Planning, Investment and Economic Development, the delegation comprised senior Government officials whose offices will play a crucial role in the census process. Our objective on the visit was to understand the distinct and interacting critical roles need to be put in place for the success of the population and housing census, what worked so well, how and why, challenges faced and how to overcome or address them in good time.

We also wanted to be informed on the best approach for mobilizing the required resources, sectors and actors to ensure success. It also enabled us to obtain information on the inter-ministerial and inter-agency collaborations vital to delivering a successful census. Rwanda provides a relatable case study for Somalia for several reasons. Apart from being the most recent country in Africa to hold a census, it also represents a remarkable example of how post-conflict societies can set on the path to recovery.

Of the many lessons conveyed to us by Rwandan officials, one message particularly resonates with the delegation; the need to ensure that the census remained a top priority of the government. In my experience, a demonstrable commitment from the highest seat of government often helps to galvanize local and international technical partners. It also creates the impetus for government funding and external resource mobilization. Partnerships are also essential, and Somalia needs all the support it can get, to prepare itself for the big occasion.
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In light of the above, UNFPA has and will continue to support the Somali government as it prepares for the count. We recognize the need to harness the strength of a population by enabling people to live quality lives to the best of their abilities. Our mantra is anchored on supporting the 10-year-old girl in a world of 8 billion through a variety of means, especially because this is fundamental to our mandate and how we view population and housing census. For Somalia, as it is in other places, the census will create the necessary conditions for the 10-year-old girl to thrive. That means becoming conscious of practices that not only keep women and girls out of school but also limit their agency and ability to make decisions about their health and sexual and reproductive lives. When women and girls are empowered by societies to exert autonomy over their lives, they and their families thrive. We are optimistic that the upcoming census will lead to a more inclusive Somalia, and one that is well-equipped to deal with whatever demographic changes the future holds.

That said, challenges are likely to arise along the way. Security remains a crucial worry due to in accessible areas where the government does not maintain complete control. However, technological solutions are being explored, with technical advisers, demographers and statisticians on hand to provide expert advice.

This special occasion of World Population Day should therefore be a time for renewed commitment from the Somali Government and all our partners to remain encouraged and committed to conduct a Census in November 2024. Despite all the challenges that this endeavor will entail, we are hopeful that we will at the end of it all be able to say: Veni, Vidi, Vici !

Niyi Ojuolape is the Country Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Somalia
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