My work has a direct link to people around the globe because socio-demographic statistics are indispensable for planning and monitoring development programmes that affect people’s lives. For more than 20 years, I have worked as a Statistician in the Demographic and Social Statistics Branch of the United Nations Statistics Division, part of DESA, which is headquartered in New York. Demography is an important social science that encompasses the study of the size, structure and distribution of populations, and spatial and/or temporal changes in them in response to births, deaths and migration.
I first developed an interest in demography when I was an undergraduate sociology student in Uganda, my country. I took an introductory course in the subject and found it fascinating. The lecturer happened to be a consultant for the United Nations, so from then on, I thought that maybe I too could work for the Organization someday. After graduating, I spent a year in Ghana, studying at the United Nations Regional Institute for Population Studies, and I later received a scholarship to obtain my Ph.D. in demography from the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.
In 1988, while writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I heard that the United Nations needed a demographer for a short-term project. I moved to New York to work with the Demographic Statistics Section, where I collected and compiled data for one of the Statistics Division’s flagship publications - the Demographic Yearbook; an annual collection of demographic and social statistics from all Member States produced by the United Nations Statistics Division. I actually worked on a special issue of the yearbook - the Demographic Yearbook 1987, which focused that year on household and family statistics.
I have worked for the United Nations ever since. One of my most rewarding experiences was when I was in charge of disability data gathered by the Social Statistics Section. I served as the section’s liaison to a global team that developed a new World Health Organization classification on disability, called the International Classification of Functioning Disability and Health. We created guidelines for the categories and terminology to be used to collect information on persons with disabilities. Some countries, for example, were using terminology that was offensive - words like “dumb” or “imbecile,” among others - and we recommended more appropriate terms.
We also suggested the questions that needed to be asked to facilitate collection of detailed data about the effect impairments have on people’s daily lives, as well as on the policies and infrastructure of the societies as they relate to persons with disabilities. This project helped promote the concept of an enabling environment with laws or policies to enhance the participation of persons with disabilities.
Now I work on the census programme of the Demographic Statistics Section. I have coordinated an international endeavor to develop the United Nations Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Rev. 2. These are international guidelines for countries to use when conducting censuses for the “2010 Round of Population and Housing Censuses” and they cover data collected over 10 years, from 2005 to 2014.
National censuses on population and housing provide the biggest source of data for planning and monitoring the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which aim to improve development by 2015 in eight critical areas, including education, health and the environment. Through the census, countries collect data in many relevant categories, among them literacy, employment, sanitation, and access to safe drinking water.
My division also monitors which countries are conducting censuses and which are not. If they are not, we find out what obstacles they are facing, and provide assistance. It is vital that governments are able to conduct censuses successfully, because they need the information to determine what social problems they might have, and then find solutions to fix them. Statisticians call this “evidence-based decision making.”
Occasionally I travel and participate as part of a team from the Division in workshops on conducting and evaluating censuses. Recently, I was in Mozambique to conduct a regional workshop for African countries on the use of a new software called Census Info, which was developed by the United Nations Statistics Division, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Population Fund to help countries better disseminate their census data at the national level and also to the international community.
My career has been so satisfying not only because I help countries collect potentially world-changing data, but also because of all the superb colleagues I have had the pleasure of working with along the way. The United Nations truly is a mosaic of cultures and personalities, and it is a place where you make life-long friends.