Papua New Guinea head count begins amid census preparation concerns

Ability of the government to deliver services is hampered and confidence in the electoral process undermined by inaccurate population figures.
Harlyne Joku and BenarNews staff
Port Moresby
Papua New Guinea head count begins amid census preparation concerns Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape became the first person to be counted in the census as part of a live program on national broadcaster EMTV on June 17 2024.

Counting is underway in a highly anticipated national census in Papua New Guinea that is hoped will dispel wildly diverging population estimates ranging from 9.6 million to nearly twice the number.

Just after midnight on Monday, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape became the first person in the country to be recorded, as part of a broadcast to raise awareness in the Pacific’s most populous nation.

The country’s census – usually conducted every decade – was delayed for several years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort must also contend with the inaccessibility of swathes of the remote highlands and island communities and risks of ethnic conflicts in some provinces.

The Pacific island country’s last reliable census was in 2000 when the population tally was 5.19 million. Researchers say the 2011 census, which produced a population figure of about 7.3 million, was botched and likely significantly undercounted the number of people. 

Questions are already emerging about whether preparations this time have been adequate. The count appeared to get off to a troubled start when census enumerators demanding their allowances reportedly clashed on Sunday with security guards at city hall in Port Moresby. 

Last week minister for administrative services Richard Masere said he had kept costs to 153 million kina (US$39 million), from a forecast budget of 300 million kina. The flawed 2011 census cost 150 million kina.

“You build public infrastructure around people and where people need services. So the census is very important for the country, to establish the number of people,” said Wilson Thompson, chairman of Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute.

Census material is prepared for distribution in East New Britain on June 16, 2024 ahead of the start of counting. [Census 2024 EBN]

Papua New Guinea, because of its unreliable population data, is unable to establish basic facts such as its infant mortality rate and how much income the country has per person, which hampers efforts to lift living standards. 

The problem was starkly underlined earlier this month when a landslide wiped out a village in Enga province. Uncertainty about the village’s population led to wildly different reports of the number of people killed – from dozens to thousands – and the true figure still remains unknown.

Matilda Pilacapio, an environmental activist and one of Papua New Guinea’s first elected female politicians, said she doesn’t believe the two weeks allotted to conduct the census will be sufficient. 

“What is most important is that PNG has the right figures of its population so the government and donors can plan and deliver the right services to its people,” Pilacapio said.

“We are guessing our population right now,” she told BenarNews. “We need the census to be conducted thoroughly, so the government can have the right figures to plan for proper schools and hospitals and roads.”

Faith in elections also is undermined because the number of people on electoral rolls is sometimes much larger than an electorate’s enumerated population.  

Voters queue up at a polling station to cast their votes in the general elections in Papua New Guinea's capital city Port Moresby on July 11, 2022. [Andrew Kutan / AFP]

After the 2022 general election, the Commonwealth observer team also reported some rolls were missing up to 50 percent of eligible voters and called on the government to  “urgently prioritise” the census.

Papua New Guinea’s statistics agency, on its website, currently estimates the population at 11.7 million. The National Research Institute in 2020 estimated the population at 9.4 million, according to Wilson.

Australian National University professors Bryant Allen and Mike Bourke estimated the population at between 8.8 million and 9.6 million people in mid-2020, based on projecting different plausible growth rates from the 2000 population number.

In 2022, a study conducted for the U.N. that combined analysis of satellite imagery and other sources estimated Papua New Guinea’s population at 17 million. Some experts, however, were skeptical the methodology could produce an accurate population figure for the country’s particular circumstances and geography.

Allen, a demography and development expert who has carried out research in Papua New Guinea since the early 1970s, told BenarNews reports on preparations for this census raise questions about whether enumerators have enough training to do the job.

National Statistician John Igitoi in a video urged everyone to take part in the count that will involve a reported 20,000 enumerators. 

“If you are not going to be counted, as I always say, you will be left out of the development picture,” he said. 

First data from the census is due for release in August.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.


Niglyagl Michael Giglmai
Jul 13, 2024 04:47 AM

My point is that, The Government of PNG is spending a lot of money for the census yet the intended purpose is still dull.
The very important people who will make the best difference are the Enumerators. Now,where is the logic to really get them to execute the task on time?
This Enumerators represents their own CU hence come from different backgrounds. For them to execute as expected, they must be paid their allowances and completion payments as approved and budgeted for. It's only the Enumerators who will make the difference and not the so called NSO Staffs and the Provincial staffs.
This Enumerators deserves lump sum of payment inorder to execute prudently.
Otherwise, alot of money has being spent outside of the intended purpose.
And if this continues, though everyone is counted still some vital information will be missing, then census population would be as estimated figures.
Let us all put our minds and hearts together for the long term benefits of the People of this nation through Census Population Counting.
Thank you.