Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Conducting a Census

Official census data can be particularly useful to project planners and evaluators. Census data helps project planners and evaluators to set baselines that can be used to measure the outcomes or even the impact of a project over time. For example, planners and evaluators might use literacy rates captured in a census to set a baseline and targets for a literacy program. This can be a cost effective way of establishing a baseline.

However, oftentimes the data captured by an official census is not appropriate to a particular project. Simply put, official census data might not include the data a project planner or evaluator needs to establish a baseline. The literacy data may not be disaggregated by gender or age or income. Or maybe the data is just not accurate or up to date. All these can be real concerns. 

In such cases, project planners and evaluators might choose to conduct their own censuses, especially in cases where the project population is a relatively small, bounded community that can be accessed feasibly. Planners and evaluators might feasibly speak to everyone or every household in a village community, or to stakeholders in a particular project, such as a farmer's cooperative or a savings group. When planners or evaluators speak to everyone, they are not generalizing their findings or their baseline to an entire community. They are collecting data from everyone in that community.

A census gives a planner or evaluator a picture of what is happening in the project population. While a census counts the total number of people in the bounded community, it often collects additional demographic data such as age, sex, education levels, employment status, kinds of employment, and other relevant data, of each household member. Planners and evaluators will tailor data collection based on what is needed to set the baseline and understand the project's outcomes and impacts.  They might ask about the household members that are not present: those that might be in an urban center or another country working and sending back remittances, or those who have unfortunately passed away, including children.

But a census can do much more than collect number of people and demographic data. Planners and evaluators oftentimes engage in mapping as they collect census data. They might get data on the kind and size of the dwellings in which people live (brick, mud, or grass, for instance, which might give another indicator of wealth); the number of livestock that people own (chickens, goats, pigs, and cows, which might give another indicator of wealth in addition to the amount of potentially available food); and the size of the land holding of the household (another indicator of wealth). They might ask about accessibility and use of electricity, water source, farming activities, use of formal banking institutions, or additional questions, depending on the scope and purpose of our project and data collection needs.

Oftentimes a planner or evaluator may not able to conduct a complete census, given available resources and time. In other cases, the size of the population is too large to make a census feasible.  In these instances, planners and evaluators will likely sample the households and collect demographic data relevant to the project, and then generalize their findings to other members of the population. 

Whether a project planner or evaluator uses official census data, conducts their own census, or samples the population, such data is helpful in establishing a baseline and setting targets to show outcomes and impact. It also helps to give the planner or evaluator a picture of the stakeholder population and its needs.

H. Russell Bernard and Clarence Gravlee, Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

Gary Ferraro and Susan Andreatta, Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective, Boston: Centage Learning, 2014.

About the Author:

Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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