We’ve mentioned before some concerns that have been raised by demographers
as to the accuracy and methodology of the UN’s world population forecasts and
how dangerous these forecasts can be when used to promote certain policies

Now here is another example of the politics of demography
and how the numbers can be massaged to ensure that the “right” answer is reached.  This example comes from the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the recent visit of the Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu to the United States. During this visit, the demographics of
the Middle East were bandied about a crucial factor in determining the region’s
political future.  In particular, much
was made of the population growth of the Palestinian people and how this was creating
pressure on Israel to try to solve the long-running conflict.

However, these
Palestinian demography figures are somewhat suspect, at least according to this article in
the Middle East Quarterly.  In short, it seems that there are various inaccuracies made in various Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reports of
those living within the West Bank and Gaza. 
The article is well worth a read and mentions that these inaccuracies
come from many sources: the double-counting of Jerusalem (it is counted also by
Israel); the lack of recording the number of emigrants and the arbitrary fixing
of population numbers to “keep up” with population growth in Israel.  The report mentions that there are two
poptential reasons to pad out the demographic numbers: to boost the morale of
Palestinians (and lower the morale of Israel); and to get more money from the
international community, as that money is tied to population.  

Now this blogpost is not here to dredge up the rights and wrongs
of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is to highlight the caution that
needs to be used when dealing with quoted population figures (let alone
projections!) If the Middle East Quarterly article is true and there has been
political massaging of the population figures in Palestine, is this likely to
be true of other countries figures?

Aside from any deliberate fudging of the numbers
for political purposes, how accurate are the data figures from underdeveloped
countries where a large proportion of the population is rural and lives in
remote, hard-to-access areas? In New Zealand the 2011 census was called off due to the
dislocation caused by the February earthquake in Christchurch. If such a
one-off event (aftershocks like those this afternoon notwithstanding) in a
relatively highly developed country is reason to think that a subsequent census
will not be accurate, how can we trust figures from nations blighted by war? Or
facing huge natural disasters? Or facing ongoing drought and famine? Or with
severely inadequate infrastructure? Quite frankly, how does one undertake an adequate
census in Somalia for example?  And this
is without even taking into account the effect that governmental corruption can
have on the final results, especially if international aid and development
money is on the line.

Now global figures and projections are only as good as the
raw data that is fed in. If that raw data is suspect, then why should the final,
global data be treated as gospel? Now, I am sure that the UN and other bodies
are aware of the problems associated with collecting data from certain parts of
the world; but I wonder how these problems are compensated for in their results.
And even if they are somehow compensated for, does this make them results any
more accurate?

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...