The last time there was a similar endeavour was 1979, when Afghanistan’s first — and so far only — census was left incomplete after the Soviet invasion. In the absence of up-to-date population surveys, that fragmentary and antiquated dataset has often been the go-to information on which government and aid agencies base development programmes.
Yet this looks set to change, says Mercedita Tia, census technical specialist at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Kabul. For the past three years and with UNFPA support, Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organization has been running the Socio-Demographic and Economic Survey (SDES), a nationwide household data survey due for completion in 2018.
Province by province, Tia tells me, the survey has been plugging the data gaps left by decades of war and insecurity. The goal is to transform development planning by gathering data on such things as age, sex and marital status, or where a household sources water and building materials.
It struck me that the strategies devised for mapping population data in a volatile context like Afghanistan could hold important lessons for other countries affected by protracted conflict, such as Syria and Iraq.
Tia says conducting the survey has indeed been immensely challenging in a country of volatile security, inaccessible terrain, poor literacy and strict cultural mores. Her team have had to adapt their work accordingly to succeed.
The process involves training surveyors recruited through adverts on radio and television, in marketplaces and mosques or by word of mouth. Surveyors then use written questionnaires to carry out detailed interviews with half the households in a province, and gather basic data on the rest. The results are then fed back to district and provincial statistics offices, cleaned, encoded as data and finally sent to the Central Statistics Organization’s main data processing centre in Kabul.
One barrier to this process is Afghanistan’s 30 per cent literacy rate. “It’s very difficult to find qualified surveyors, especially in the remote areas and villages,” Tia says. “Even when people are high school graduates — our minimum requirement — it can be difficult for them to comprehend how the survey works.”
This calls for longer training workshops than UNFPA would normally offer. “In a country like the Philippines, surveyor training would take seven days, but in Afghanistan it’s 14 days, sometimes longer, and involves many mock interviews and field practice.”
And survey techniques must be adapted to minimise safety risks, Tia says. For example, a ‘saturation mapping’ technique is used in particularly insecure areas: rather than sending one surveyor to assess an area over a standard 15-day period, around ten surveyors go in for one day and move around quickly to try to attract less attention.
“A ‘saturation mapping’ technique is used in particularly insecure areas.”
Other strategies involve employing local guides to steer surveyors safely into villages. “In highly security-compromised areas, these guides might even be anti-government elements or Taliban,” Tia says. “But the problem is you cannot easily penetrate a village if you’re not from there, so we need guides to gain access.”
Cultural restrictions that forbid women from talking to men from outside their households are another hurdle. The team has strived to recruit female surveyors to help here, but this has been hard as Afghan women are typically less literate than men.
“We can’t compromise data quality by recruiting women who can’t read or write, but if we do find [literate] women, we prioritise them,” Tia says. “If they’re on the borderline of qualifying, we recruit them and provide additional, focused training.”
Imogen Mathers is a reporter/producer at SciDev.Net. @ImogenMathers
References Mara Hvistendahl Surveys reveal state of Afghan population (Science, 23 January 2015)
 Launch of Kabul socio-demographic and economic survey highlights 2013 (UNFPA Afghanistan, 13 January 2015)