The Importance of Being Counted

The title reminds me of the Norwegian children’s story by Alf Prøysen about the little goat who counted to ten. In the story, the goat begins to count himself, and when he meets his friends he asks if he can count them too. «I don’t think I have the courage, I’m not even sure my mother would let me», says his friend the calf and tries to get away, but the goat counts him anyway: «I am one, you are two.»

The calf starts to cry and calls for his mother, and when the mother cow arrives, the goat counts her, too. «Now he counted you too!» says the calf, and the mother cow becomes furious. The calf counts more and more animals as he is chased around, and in the end they arrive to a river and the goat jumps on to a boat with all the animals after him.

The skipper on the boat panics and cries out: «Does anyone here know how to count? This boat can only take ten animals!» The goat counts all the animals: they are ten, so they are safe. The story ends as all the animals applaude the goat and he becomes the skipper’s helper on the boat.

You might say that this example is a bit silly and childish, but on the other hand it certainly does illustrate both the skepticism towards and the importance of being counted.

Taylor and Schroeder (2014) talk about the importance of being counted (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014, p. 506) when referring to Morten Jerven’s highly interesting book «Poor Numbers» about the lack of accurate data on Africa and in African development work. According to Jerven’s experience and findings, the statistics on African economy are inaccurate, arbitrary and misleading. Consequently, of course, important decisions are being made by actors in African development on the basis of poor numbers.

This illustrates one central example of the relevance of data for development and, more precisely, the importance of gathering accurate (and enough) data to be used in development policy. It illustrates one of the major problems when it comes to data gathering in developing, low- and middle-income countries is that data gathering is poor, or even absent (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014, p. 504).

And why is it important to be counted? We have already answered that question: simply said, because decisions are made and measures are implemented on the basis of the data. For example, counting the population in a country is «vital for the measurement and practise of development» (Jerven, 2013, p. 56). Therefore, being counted also means getting access to resources. (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014, p. 504).

Another example of the importance of being counted is Aadhaar, a biometric ID system database in India. The Aadhaar number is a 12-digit number that Indian citizens receive on the basis of both demographic (name, age, etc.) and biometric (fingerprints, iris scan) information.

Aadhar can be used, citing from the Unique Identification Authority of India’s website: “a basis/primary identifier to roll out several Government welfare schemes and programmes for effective service delivery…” and “is a strategic policy tool for social and financial inclusion, public sector delivery reforms” and so on.

The problem is that not everyone can be identified by their fingerprints or by an iris scan. As pointed out by Taylor (2017), people who do heavy manual work may not have fingerprints and people who are malnourished may not have good enough iris scans (Taylor, 2017, p. 5). Therefore, the Aadhaar system excludes the poorest part of the population.

That being said, according to Taylor, it seems like Aadhaar recognizes the challenges of the system and is working on how to reach more of India’s citizens (ibid).

For Morten Jerven, a solution for poor numbers in African economy is more knowledge and research emphasizing the relevance and quality of data in (African) development. A first step towards better data is certainly made by recognizing the problem. It now remains for researchers in development to pick up the thread.


About Aardaar, from the UIDAI website, retreived from on October 11th, 2017.

Jerven, M. (2013): Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled By African Development Statistics and What To Do About it. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sandnes (2014), Geitekillingen som kunne telle til ti, Sandnes media, retreived from on October 10th, 2017.

Taylor, L. 2017: What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms on the global level, draft paper.

Taylor, L., Schroeder R. 2015: Is bigger better? The emergence of big data as a tool for international development policy. GeoJournal 80: 503-528.

5 Replies to “The Importance of Being Counted”

  1. Hi Helen!
    Nice to be reminded of that cute story about the goat who counted 😀

    When it comes to the more serious implications of being counted, I also find it interesting to think about what an official registration means in terms of recognition. In a world where the vast majority has a kind of registration number (personal number, passport number, ID, insurance etc.), NOT having any number or being registered anywhere really isolates you.

    In most countries, it is as if you don’t exist if you don’t have a personal number. In Denmark, where I live now, if you don’t have a CPR-number (personal number), you almost can’t do anything; open a bank account, buy medicine, get a fixed deal for your phone, get a discount card in the supermarket.
    The people who do not have a number, are not entitled to anything from the Danish state; they don’t exist for the system (which is almost omnipresent in the society).

    And not having a number – and the rights that follow, or correct treatment, as you point out in your post – also means that you as an individual or social group are not recognized as a part of society on the same level as the rest. You remain forgotten, ignored or excluded from the community. This also have social effects, and increases the gap between the outsiders and the rest. The lack of numbers also give the incentive of politicians to talk about individuals as “illegal” and discriminate, also socially.

    At the Örecomm symposium last year, I talked with a PhD student from Malmö University who was researching on invisible borders limiting people’s behaviour and possibilities. The lack of being counted is definitely a big one.

    Interesting topic to bring up, and something we definitely should focus more on!

    1. Exactly 🙂 This is also true for asylum seekers and for some people with refugee status in Norway. You can’t do anything without a personnummer. Thanks for the comment!!

  2. Helen, this is interesting and attractive way of starting with the story, this post brought to my mind some of the challenges we faced in some developing countries but I never put it in this way as you did “The Importance of Being Counted”. In many countries some people are not counted at all, they do not exist in any records. No birth certificate, no death certificate. We were surprised that many people in some countries do not think it’s a useful thing to be counted outside their small tiny community. They don’t even bother to register official birth or names, some they don’t register their children until they need to start schools, and for girls never, because they might not even go to schools.

  3. Thanks Helen for this interesting post. Being counted is certainly a privilege not all of us enjoy.

    Jerven’s emphasis on population data is in my opinion accurate as most other properties like economic growth, health statistics, educational attainment and so on are all predicated upon population data. But what I especially liked about Jerven’s book was the he brings forward the notion of the role of the state in the production of official statistics. And so it’s not only “who’s” being counted but also “what’s” being counted. In his line of argument one would expect to see the governments statistical priorities mirror their political priorities, which in many cases could be problematic if for example a particular government does not prioritize a certain area or even a group of the population. Example’s of this could be the Roma populations in Romania or Bulgaria, or the Rohingya population in Myanmar to name but a few.

    Thus, official statistics are by its nature a top-down process where the government decide what and who is to be counted. Here’s where I think Big Data has a great potential to disrupt this order by giving the people the means to produce their own data in a bottom-up fashion. The Aadhar example from India is of course an interesting case where government tries to extend its counting reach through biometric data etc. But this is again a top-down process and one where the people potentially give up a large part of their integrity in the hands of government without the ability to chose otherwise. Is this only good? I am not sure that e.g. some of the minority groups in India perceives this as only good. Of course, this argument also extends to the use (and misuse) of Big Data, and the bias of who is capable of producing their own data (again, this capability may not be in the hands of the most vulnerable populations). As Tim Unwin suggests, one needs always to adopt a critical theory mindset when dealing with these issues in order to balance potential with threats.

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