The NSO may still not be capable of conducting a credible population count. The World Bank’s 2020 Statistical Capacity Indicator scored PNG at 52.2, well below the low- and middle-income country average of 64.9. Further, the NSO’s 2021 reform strategy stated that a lack of government funding had contributed to the loss of skilled personnel.

It isn’t all gloomy. The NSO can draw on the success of the recently completed Demographic and Health Survey (DHS 2016–2018), funded by USAID and conducted with the Department of Health, other PNG agencies, Australia’s aid program, the DHS program, UNFPA and UNICEF. Although it suffered some issues, including taking longer than usual, the 2018 DHS was an achievement as a large, nationally representative survey.

The 2024 census will face the same logistical challenges: difficult geography and remoteness, severe weather conditions, refusal by respondents to participate, challenges to ensure safety of staff, poor telecommunications network coverage, and delays in funds and payments to service providers. International partners should look for opportunities to help local officials overcome these hurdles.

All said, PNG needs to conduct a census, and one that is credible. PNG, however, cannot do this alone. There is scope for optimism that PNG, with assistance, can deliver a credible census, as it did in 2018 with the DHS. It is important, however, that PNG’s development partners take note and prepare to assist come 2024, to avoid another failed census.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute.