Relief :: Improvements in population data needed to support humanitarian relief and development efforts

Every year, millions of people worldwide are displaced because of natural or industrial disasters or social upheaval. Reliable data on the numbers, characteristics and locations of these displaced populations can bolster humanitarian relief efforts and subsequent recovery programs. Conversely, the absence of such information can hinder the prompt delivery of aid and impact the survival and recovery of affected groups.

Using sound methods for creating these data sets is important in both industrialized and developing nations, but resource-poor countries especially face large challenges in collecting and using their own national, regional, and local population data to respond to calamities or plan development initiatives.

Solid data help policymakers and others determine how much and what type of aid is needed and where to direct it. However, without a strong organizational and political desire to maintain and use the information, or adequate training, many population data sets will go unused or be outdated when they are needed most. National governments and relief organizations around the world should value this kind of information and train relevant practitioners in their own countries to successfully apply it in times of crisis and in any development planning, says a new report from the National Research Council.

Political instability, organizational difficulties, and a lack of resources in many developing nations have precluded the collection and use of reliable census data. There is a clear need for more international resources to help train professionals in these countries to maintain their national population databases and conduct censuses and regular population surveys, the report says. Furthermore, national statistical offices should be integrated into each country’s preparedness and response team for national emergencies. Disaster relief agencies should likewise reinforce ties to the offices. The point is to marshal knowledge and information technology, and coordinate initiatives at all levels, to make positive differences.

Standards should be set for the types and amount of information that countries should collect and share with emergency responders and relief agencies, the report says. Creating a central, worldwide archive for local and regional population data, using templates available through existing archives, would also help authorities deal more effectively with humanitarian crises. At the same time, appropriate safeguards would be necessary to maintain the confidentiality of data.

The U.S. government should coordinate and centralize its efforts to improve the use and distribution of these data for disaster response and development, the report adds. With expertise in population studies and demography, the U.S. Census Bureau could play a lead role in this area, working to enhance statistical estimates of at-risk global populations and to raise the quality of data that informs America’s humanitarian efforts and reconstruction programs. In addition to supporting the federal government’s global relief measures, the Census Bureau’s expanded duties could include training geographers and foreign demographers to improve data collection, analysis, and distribution in their own countries. The bureau also should have an active research program in estimating populations at risk.

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