A Modest Proposal – Get this Census Finished

The ongoing debate on how to count the results of the 2013 BiH census continues to demonstrate the perils of conflating real reform with superficial agreements and half-baked strategies. In a nutshell, the results of the census conducted in autumn 2013 have not been released due to ongoing disagreement among the political parties concerning the definition of “resident,” with the RS preferring a conservative definition with the intention of limiting the number of non-Serbs in that entity, while the Federation parties, and in particular Milorad Dodik’s political partner Dragan Čović seek a more liberal definition that would increase the final totals, and, specifically, the number of Croats. (See this blog post for more detail on these counting dynamics.)

I’d like to propose a simple solution that could end this saga, and allow the census to be considered a “success” without further polarizing the country’s entities and distracting from much more urgent issues:

  • All submitted forms should be counted for the final analysis;
  • The responses for the optional questions should be completely discounted. This would include ethnicity/nationality (#24) and religion (#25), which were included without reflecting good practice in regard to such sensitive identity questions. This would also exclude the question on entity citizenship (#19.1) which was never needed, the purpose of which was never specified, and which was included at the last minute;
  • The response to the mandatory question on mother tongue (#26) should simply be ignored and not counted. This would require an amendment to the Law on the Census, but would be easy to take care of, especially by a parliament so often eager to use urgent procedure to push through legislation. Nothing would be lost; there was never, ever, any requirement to ask this question – it’s a clear proxy for ethnicity/nationality.

The reason for the first suggestion is simple – notcounting all submitted, valid forms at this stage would gravely compromise the results; images of political functionaries feeding census forms into a shredder does not instill confidence.

However, and even more importantly, if BiH is, as it claims to be, a credible and aspiring EU candidate country, it is actually in its interest to ensure as large a population as possible so that any structural funding based on population size is favorable. More people = more money.

The second two suggestions are also simple.

These questions were never required by the EU or Eurostat. Never. During one of his visits to BiH in 2013, Peter Everaers noted that, “The international standard is that the questions on religion and nationality are not required, but that if they are included in the census form, there are specific recommendations that have to be followed.” These controversial and subjective identity-focused questions were only included to appease political parties interested in claiming the biggest share of the population in any one ethno-territorially defined chunk of territory. Yes, that’s right – all of the newsprint and angst since 2012 on these identity questions were never, ever needed. It’s not surprising that political parties did not make this clear; it is frustrating that while the form was being negotiated there were no loud voices from EU representatives clearly telling the people of the country that BiH could access every Eurocent of future structural funding without asking these controversial questions.

However, now that more people have woken up to the fact that we may be witnessing a completely predictable 25 million Euro policy failure, it’s time to be clear. These questions were never needed by the EU, and are not needed now. Count the results of the forms so that BiH and Brussels will know how people travel to work; how people heat their houses; where people get their water; what their dwellings are constructed of; and answers to other such practical questions.

If this is not acceptable, then what do politicians actually want to do with data analyzed substantially along ethnic lines? Perhaps that is the 25 million Euro question.

BHS verzija – BCS version