Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Quality of Demographic Data on Older Africans

Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Quality of Demographic Data on Older Africans

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Age, together with sex, is one of the key "demographic variables" (Bogue 1969: 147), and is the "centrepiece" of much demographic theory (Poston Jr and Micklin 2006: 23). In order to accurately understand population change - its scale, speed, and variants - we therefore need accurate data on the age of a population's members. Historically, errors of age reporting in censuses have received considerable attention from demographers because "errors are readily apparent" and "measurement techniques can be more easily developed for age data" (Shryock and Siegel 1976: 115). Techniques to improve age reporting and recording include the use of "landmark" events with which to anchor life history calendars (Axinn, Pearce, and Ghimire 1999), and many census enumerators' manuals include event calendars to help enumerators determine ages. In low-income countries, whilst levels of knowledge of age or date of birth are increasing, especially for younger cohorts due to increased education and administrative requirements for date of birth, there remain substantial problems of age reporting and recording for older people and for those who are unschooled. These problems are particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where, until recently, high levels of illiteracy and low levels of development have been combined with a widespread social irrelevance of knowing absolute age, although relative age has always been important.

The percentage of the population aged 60+ has remained constant for Sub-Saharan Africa at 4.8% since 1970. Over the same period the percentage aged 60+ increased from 4.8% to 5.1% for all low income countries, from 6.1% to 10.5% for middle income countries, and from 13.8% to 20.3% for high income countries (UN 2015). Despite these low and stable proportions, the absolute numbers of older people in Sub- Saharan Africa are increasing (Velkoff and Kowal 2007) because of rapid population growth. It is unclear whether adequate data exist to assess the numbers of older people accurately, let alone provide the detailed information needed to inform age-appropriate policy decision-making. Whereas in Europe and in many countries in Asia and South America specific surveys focus on older populations, in much of Africa most statistical information on older people comes from more general data sources such as censuses, Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Living Standards Measurement Surveys (LSMS) and other nationally representative sample surveys, as well as a number of geographically limited demographic surveillance systems (DSS). The relatively small proportion of older people in Africa contributes to this lack of surveys focusing on this demographic sub-group. There are a few detailed studies on aging such as the SAGE (WHO Study on global AGEing and adult health) studies (WHO n.d.-a), which at a national level in Africa only covers Ghana (Biritwum et al. 2013) and South Africa, but which is also implemented within demographic surveillance studies (DSS) in Kenya (Nairobi), Ghana (Navrongo), South Africa (Agincourt), and Tanzania (Ifakara). However these localised studies do not allow a general profile of the older population at the national level, for which a census or nationally representative sample survey is needed.

Data on older Africans may be deficient in two ways: limited scope and inaccuracy. In censuses, where data on a range of variables are available for the whole population, the scale and speed of the exercise and the temporary employment of inexperienced enumerators probably mean that little attention is paid to accurate age reporting of older people, especially in contexts where many older people are illiterate, few know their ages, and trying to obtain accurate ages using event calendars is time consuming. One would therefore expect age accuracy to be the main problem in censuses, whereas the scope (such as economic activity and migration) of census data is the same for older and younger adults. …

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