Saturday, July 29, 2006

Census Time

Quick—what do France, Nigeria, and Lebanon have in common?

None collect ethnic or religious affiliation data about their own citizens. And in all three cases, there’s a political (and politically problematic) reason for this.

In France, the rioting six or seven months ago in suburbs of Paris and elsewhere was generally attributed to a failure to integrate immigrant youth into French culture and the economy. A few commentators disputed this, claiming that the rioters weren’t predominantly immigrant, but the truth is it’s hard to know for sure. France doesn’t collect date on the religious affiliation or ethnicity of its population, on the pretext that to do so would damage the unity of French the nation. Consequently, we don’t properly know who rioted, because we don’t know who lives in the suburbs.

In Nigeria, the census a few months ago assiduously avoided ethnicity and, perhaps more importantly, religious questions. The result is that we won’t know just how much bigger the conservative Muslim north is than the more liberal Christian south. We also won’t know just how big the tribes of the Niger Delta are, and thus won’t know how many people remain poor while others benefit from an oil boom there. All this information might be the basis for conflict, or so goes the argument. So no one much wants to know.

In Lebanon, the post civil war government has been structured after the last census, conducted in 1932. The each major religious group is allotted a fixed number of seats in parliament based on the population proportions determined back then. Of course, the numbers are probably inaccurate now, but no one knows this for sure. Here are some rough numbers though, to take three of the largest sectarian groups. The post-1989 parliament is fixed to include 34 Maronite Christians, 27 Sunnis and 27 Shiites, of a total 128 seats. Recent population estimates suggest the following balance in the country: 20% Maronite, 25% Sunni, and 30-40% Shiite (numbers from Wikipedia). So the parliament, though elected, necessarily undervalues Shiite votes and overvalues those of Maronites. Throw in that the Shia have traditionally been the poorest part of the population, and this apparent disenfranchisement might help explain why they’d support an organization like Hezbollah.

Of course, it’s difficult to know what the consequences of all this missing information would be if we had it. In Nigeria, ignorance may have helped to hold back civic conflict of one kind or another. In Lebanon it has been the basis of the post civil war settlement (which now stands rather in doubt). In France it probably does little good at all. Still, it’s hard to imagine a permanent, stable political arrangement in Lebanon that doesn’t take into account the size of the Shiite population. This kind of ignorance may help to breed a limited stability (nothing changes if we don’t know why it should) but it isn’t likely the basis for a lasting peace.

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