During a recent interview with a fellow RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), I was asked an interesting question. “David, if you had a magic wand, what would you change to promote equality among indigenous peoples in the general population”.

There was a bit of laughter back and forth. “If”, I said, “I genuinely had a magic wand, I would simply make people equal. It would not be a case of making things more this or that. It would just be done, problem solved That is how magic works, right?

I would be able to use my magic wand to get rid of all the systemic and institutional hurdles and nightmares that have marginalised and stripped peoples of their rights. I would nullify the abuses and equalise all peoples in their treatment. Of course, that isn’t so simple—if we take the example of the monkey’s paw wand, which twists wishes based on all that is unsaid—we’d also have to agree upon the standard of equalisation that would take place.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the type of magic wand my interviewer had in mind. Instead, my magic wish was limited to change single thing, and remember, I was told, I couldn’t change anything else, I think that I would use that magic wand to do a complete census of the world and the world’s peoples with complete data. Censuses are carried out all over the world because states need them to understand the territories and resources they govern.

As a society, and as duty bearers who are acting to provide services and ensure implementation of rights for people around the globe, one of the biggest issues that we face is the flawed, poor quality & quantity of data which in turn leads to incomplete statistics. We quite simply have inadequate and insufficient disaggregated data about populations, everywhere around the world. It’s not that I think people are only numbers by any means. A census on its own is only a snapshot, a particular view of the moment in time. The lives of human beings, peoples and their needs, can’t be reduced and encapsulated in data and statistics—but that said, a census is an essential tool which governments, civil society, duty bearers and service providers use to distribute their resources. That is the important part. Distributions of resources are based on numbers; they are based off of the categorisation and aggregation of data points which convert into actionable information.

These data when collected and analysed, are vital resources in the policy-making process. Disaggregated data and information must be available for policy makers to be able to assess the situation their constituents face in order to develop appropriate, evidence-based responses and policies. In addition, the data should not stand alone, but should ideally cover and evidence trends through time. This can be accomplished by having multiple censuses to allow for these actors to look across several decades to track changes and take corrective action.

One example that I gave in that interview was that of the United States. In the midst of its on-going census, the current US administration has cut the data collection period by a month. So, if the resources follow the numbers, in the US, the census is driving trillions of dollars that are in play. These funds are distributed based on the answers to the US Census and are a foundational data point in every aspect of the country’s operations. Serious issues, including undercounting, not only affects numbers used to reapportion and redraw political districts, but also damages the fidelity of the baselines used by all levels of government and much of the private and civil sector. These baselines are used to allocate trillions of dollars in federal grants and other aid in the coming decade.

Incomplete censuses or censuses which do not disaggregate (break down) data to an adequate level pose an immediate threat to communities and groups who are seeking to claim their rights and benefits. As an example, for almost 20 years we have been using a World Bank estimate of 370 million Indigenous people worldwide (World Bank, 2003). Previous available estimates of Indigenous peoples’ population calculated an overall figure of around 4.5 per cent (World Bank, 2011) to 5 per cent (World Bank, 2003) of the global population. A rough estimate was that it ranged from 300 million (World Bank, 2011) to 370 million indigenous peoples living in some 90 countries (UN, 2009). Now the ILO in February of this year (2020), just using a lower-bound estimate from a fraction of the countries (58 of over 90) — those which actually had official data on indigenous peoples, estimated there are 476 million Indigenous people at a minimum and probably substantially more (Implementing the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169: Towards an inclusive, sustainable and just future).

So, that reporting, which again is a lower-bound estimate based on what fragmented official data is available from only 58 of 90 states, demonstrates a 100-million-person difference right off the bat. And that is acknowledging that a majority of data was missing or was not available or wasn’t being collected in official datasets.

Now if you start to tie this together, and begin to think about how a government, how an aid organisation, how private business, even if you want to bring it down from the international or national level, all the way down to how a small community or village distributes its resources, how do you decide how many schools, how do you determine the number of fire fighters, police, how do you justify infrastructure like roads and electricity or sewerage, how many hospitals should there be? You can immediately see how essential this data is, what a key resource it is in planning and in ensuring adequate service delivery.

Duty bearers and interested parties recognise the value of census data as a tool, because as soon as you start to map your cities and towns against population densities, all of a sudden you have to make decisions, very difficult decisions, about who gets what and who is entitled to what resources and support. You need data, high quality data, to do that in a fair and equitable way. Business also relies on these public resources, having census data helps to map potential markets for products; demographics and disaggregated data also aids in targeting of services. It also ensures that protection mechanisms, like those that help to fight land grabbing have adequate resources to identify which population groups must be contacted and consulted in line with the tenets of free, prior, informed consent and the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO’s Convention 169.

Is data by itself enough to change things? No. But it is a crucial tool that establishes a framework for advocacy and the claiming of rights.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues we face as a global society today, is that peoples are not counted, are not recognised, aren’t given the resources that they’re entitled to. Nor can they claim those rights with evidence-based advocacy without reliable data. Indigenous Peoples particularly face this challenge.

These rights must be promoted, protected, and defended, and to do that we need reliable census data to compare against data on human rights violations, consultation protocols, and rights implementation among many other issues.

Here is where I get frustrated, because access to high quality data serves to support key, fundamental rights—rights which are often ignored or given lip service to, while not being implemented. This ranges from ensuring groups are recognised as individual peoples, with the right to be taught in their own languages in a culturally appropriate way or provisions that ensure adequate health care and services. Groups are ensured both individual and collective rights; cultural rights and those which relate to identity. These rights also outlaws discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. They ensures their right to self-determination and to remain distinct as well as to pursue their own priorities in economic, social and cultural development. Nevertheless, these groups are consistently ignored, they are excluded, they aren’t even counted. A fundamental violation of their rights.

But, these groups, just like you and me and everyone else on this planet—have the same fundamental rights we do—a right to make decisions about their land, about their futures and to determine what that future will be. This is not just something fanciful—It is ironic that these rights are already protected in international law. But, they are not enforced. They are not implemented and part of the challenge in ensuring that implementation is a complete gathering, counting, and disaggregated analysis of the data. Gathering this data, and ensuring it can be used for evidence-based advocacy is a key component to ensuring that they can be claimed, that they will be implemented.

I would like to leave off with this. When you start to give an accurate count of people, you can not only distribute resources more fairly, but in an ideal world, you can also start to recognise and proportionally represent them; to make sure that if they are a minority, or in some cases if they are the majority that they have the honest representation that they are entitled to in all of these “invisible” processes.