Bosnia Herzegovina: census, the demography of division and the reality of illiteracy

Bosnia Herzegovina: census, the demography of division and the reality of illiteracy

While waiting for the last (hopefully) act of the incredible BH-census-soap-opera, which should have is grand final in December this year, 2016, I have as many other, invested my time and read the provisional results published by the BH Agency for Statistics on the eve of the expiring deadline.

Luckily, apart for the lengthy pdf,  a fair amount of .xls tables were made accessible for download at the yet-to-be-filled census website:


That the Census would not satisfy anyone was known, the census that was done against common sense with bad preparation and implementation (the census foreseen for April 2013 was postponed to October 2013 and few weeks before its implementation was clear the lack of planning, including that was missing a defined central location were to store 100 tons of material and a clear definition of security measures such as video surveillance, fire-fighting equipment, to do not talk of the violation and negligence on the management and protection of people personal data).

The campaign of the three main ethnic blocks was focusing only on stating once more the demography of division trough the most discussed and opposed/supported three questions: ethnicity, religion and “mother language”.

Civil society fought and lost its battle trying to have all three questions as optional instead of compulsory. The political options in power fought their battle and won, they wanted to have those three questions above all. The only choice for people was about getting creative in responding on how to hold for themselves answering “do not want to declare/state my ethnicity, religion or mother tongue”. Twenty years after the war was important to claim a victory, or to bring the ethnic rhetoric of victim-hood to a new stage.

The census of population, households and dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina was carried out during the period from 1 October to 15 October 2013, based on the Law on Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013 (Official Gazette of BiH, 10/12 and 18/13).

Then the census results seemed lost, almost three years passed waiting for the publication. For years we knew only the total numbers of residents, a simplified demography with the overall number of people living in the country and in the main cities. The census was entering in another tormented phase. How to publish the result if the three statistic agencies existing in Bosnia Herzegovina: the state one, and the two entities agencies, could not agreed about the criteria on how to aggregate divergences. And speculations started.

Citizens gave themselves the hope, nationalistic options had been punished by the people and a fourth group without the ethnicity flag would rise. This did not happened.

The Census
The international community insisted on the publication of the result, giving the usual series of ultimatum that characterized the happening of any relevant act of governance by BiH institution. So at the very last moment one day before the very last deadline, on the 30th of June 2016 the Census results (a first edition, as quoted on the official pages and zip folder of the BiH Agency for Statistics) were published. After two years eight months and 15 days, in the very last-minute-Bosnian-Herzegovinian-stile the census results were published. And, for the happiness of the few open data fellow, was created. Even do the promised visual, interactive and at glance section of the site, are displaying a demotivating uskoro/soon, the download section offer along with the usual pdf, seventeen (17) .xls files containing data on demography, general literacy and computer literacy, households and so on.

So the results say that, Bosnia Herzegovina majority recognize him/her/themselves in one of the three main ethnic communities. Each of these groups seems to be deeply religious (99%), and to speak the “corresponding” ethnic language.

Census at Glance – Post war Demography table 1, 2 and 3, source: Cenzus of population, households and dwellings in bosnia and herzegovina, 2013 final result, Bosnai Herzegovina Agency for statistics

Even do, the language spoken by the majority of Bosniaks, according to the data published by the BiH Agency for Statistic, is named as Bosnian, and not as the more ethnic version of Bosniaks. This, generated an institutional crisis, since in the Constitution of the Entity Republic of Srpska, exist Bosniaks and not Bosnian. The leading Bosniaks party SDA, and the leading Serbs party SNSD launched themselves in an escalating very dramatic series of statements. Exacerbating the always present rhetoric of ethnic cleansing, and disrespect of the Dayton Peace Agreement. With the government of Republic of Srpska, together with all representatives of the Serbs constitutive people inside BIH common State institutions, refusing to recognize and accept the just-published-yet-provisional-first-results of the census.

Aside this drama, which will unfold as any other drama in BiH public political life with cycles and picks of mutual threats and ultimatum, followed by ritual calls at the negotiation tables initiated by the international community, what country, situation, the published numbers seemed to suggest?

If we compare, adding and subtracting, from the three main (for the public opinion) categories of: nationality/ethnicity, religion and mother tongue, it appears Bosnia has a 20,862 higher numbers of people professing Islam as religion, than the number of people that identify by nationality/ethnicity as Bosniak. Which could tell that other national minorities are professing Islam too or that we have believers which do not identify with any nationality.

In fact, in this first reading we lack data on any of the other national/ethnic groups and minorities who lives in BiH, such as Roma communities but not only. And it is in this indistinctness and roughness of this first contested results, that we can imagine the existence of a town of 130,054 inhabitants which do not recognizes themselves in those three major ethnic groups (the Bosniaks, the Croats and the Serbs). This imaginary town would be the third town in Bosnia Herzegovina after Sarajevo and Banja Luka. An in this little town would live all the others/does-not-declares or unknown. In this little town would also live a majority of 118,612 agnostic/atheists/does not declares/others or unknown with just 63,066 people speaking a language different from the mother language of the main three big ethnic groups, a language by the current results defined as other/unknown. And this would summarize the overall size of the multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity of the post-war Bosnia Herzegovina.

population ethnic percentages
population ethnic percentages

(source: Census of population, households and dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013 final result, Bosna i Herzegovina Agency for Statistics)

So the meme of the multicultural Bosnia Herzegovina can now start a new cycle based on these first census results with its inhabitants identities visibly inscribed and fixed in major ethnically overlapping religious and language identities. And Bosnia Herzegovina as well as the Federation with its towns of Sarajevo and Tuzla when claiming their diversity need to remind to themselves that the size of the non-ethnic communities in BIH is still to be defined considering we do not have the numbers of the national minorities, which we do not know if decided to belong to one of the three major ethnic groups or to stand alone with their mother tongues.

Disability or how to spend millions measuring nothing
A chapter on its own deserve the results on disability. The question formulate in an incorrect manner are unable to provide useful results, using terms that cannot be measured such as smaller or bigger difficulties. The best analysis was provide by Lidija Pisker in in her article for Popisao lud zbunjenog, (the crazy did the census for the confused) an ironic title paraphrasing a well known sit-comedy produced in BiH.

… The census questions are formulated in a way that do not to treat disability, but “kind of difficulties” classified as ability to walk, memory, communication, ability to dress autonomously or to provide to the personal hygiene … According to BiH, laws, secondary schools are classified in gymnasium, technical, professional, religious, teaching and so called “Special” educational institution. In the Census questionnaire those schools are not mentioned, there is just a general reference to secondary schools for children with disabilities, which do not provide any indication about the numbers of children with disability attending or not attending special educational institutions.

The reality of illiteracy
The issue of disability together with literacy, or better to say the seriously high illiteracy rate for a European country in 2016 both on traditional literacy indicators and computers literacy when read combined with active/inactive population is what define the current status and unenviable condition of the average citizen/resident of Bosnia Herzegovina.

Disability, as public concern, remain marginalized by the census. An additional lost opportunity of bringing clarity and relevant information for a better planning of resources. Illiteracy is the data that most of any other seems prejudicial for a dignified future. The not-knowing-enough and the less knowing/earning of girls/women is the statistical category that reveal to me the Bosnia I was afraid. The Bosnia that rely on otherness as means and mirror to get over a sense of meager selfness.

literacy rate
Table on Literacy,  Census of population, households and dwellings in BiH, 2013 provisional result, BiH Agency for statistics

89,794 individuals are illiterate, equal to the  2,89% of the overall population (3,180,115 from the age of 10) and about an additional 33,184 we do not know if the belong to the illiterate or not. They can be people with serious health condition hospitalized. We can only speculate, because what is certain is that we do not know. But there is more, if we look at data breakdown by sex, the data tell us that 77,557 women/girls are the one left behind, the most illiterates. In this tiny land, at state level, we have 4.76 % of women/girls illiterate. Is a consolation for the nationalist of the Federation of BiH that the other entity scores high with 5,32%. People are left behind. BiH is a country where the minority of a territory is the majority of the other and everywhere rules only the will of the majority.

This terrible data ask for more thinking and serious doing by Bosnia Herzegovina institutions at all levels but especially at the two Entities and District level  which are in charge of education policies, strategies and most of all manage the budget on education.

But it does not stop here, two more tables provides the depth of the illiteracy and define how seriously limited are people’s opportunities for dignified lives.

(download and look at the tables 9 and 10 – Census of population, households and dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013 final result, Bosna i Herzegovina Agency for statistics)

If we combines the people with no education at all (146,078), incomplete primary education (274,036), primary education (640,726) we reach 1,060,840 (and we know already of the many limitations of the census classification about children with disability). The remaining 2,987,440 if we compare with the numbers emerging from the computer literacy data we realize that also the people with secondary school (1,525,161) are de facto illiterate, essentially not well enough equipped to participate and benefit of the knowledge and information society.

According to the BIH Agency for Statistics Computer literacy is defined as follow:

Computer literacy data were collected for persons aged 10 and over. These persons could state either that they knew how to perform one or several computer activities (text processing, table creation, using e-mail and the Internet) or that they did not know how to perform any of the offered activity options. Computer literacy shall be defined as one’s ability to process a text, create a table, use e-mail and the Internet. A person who is capable of performing at least one of the stated activities shall be considered to be a partly computer literate person. A person who is not capable of performing any of the stated activities shall be considered to be a computer illiterate person.


Computer illiterate percentage
Computer illiterate percentage

source: Census of population, households and dwellings in BiH, 2013 provisional result, BiH Agency for statistics

On the population from 10 years old (3,180,115) same baseline used for illiteracy: 1,152,353 are computer illiterate, in other words the 38,7% of the population, while other 758,800 equal to 23,6% are considered partly computer literate, meaning able to perform at least one of these activities: process a text, create a table, use e-mail and the Internet.

The rhetorical inflammatory question of the post-war demography, is a false issue. It suits perfectly the demagogic, nationalist and populist divide et impera discourse of the leading political parties, which compete and share power at state and entities levels. While serving their perpetual necessity of numbers to justify their existence, what is truly devastating is the diffuse low level of formal education, with women and girls behind, and a population that in the contemporary information society is not acquainted with technology beyond basic functions.

If we have more that half of the population (38,7 + 23,6 = 62,3%) barely able to use computers and navigate the current digital environment how can we even talk about employment and qualification of workers. Which future are we suggesting to women/girls that suffer a double gap in education: literacy and digital literacy (684,897 women/girls illiterate against 545,075 men/boys). Again a little town of 139,822 women/girls othered.

Can we feel the consolation of having more women with highest educational level? 148,079 women with university degree against 137,543 man? Is this number significant when of the 1,534,146 women in the working age only 406,898 are employed and 988,248 are considered inactive (with a note about the fact than the 440,992 reported as inactive by the census classification, are most probably working hard in their traditional family roles: cleaning, caring, saving and so on.

The Bosnia Herzegovina emerging from the census is a country out of its time, in a truly dystopian way lacks the skills of the time (computer) and has an adult, aging population. The average age is 39.5 years old. So, the adult, not the young will turn the negative trends of politics, economy and social welfare?

Education should be the most serious, urgent and strategic problem for the plethora of politicians ready, at each electoral round, administrative or political, to spend millions of words in campaigning on how they will build or rebuild their country, entity, cantons, or municipality. But ethnicity, religion and language terminological diatribes (Bosnian vs. Bosniaks) occupy and floods continuously the public space.

The only clarity of this census, for any citizens, resident or activists is that politicians, bureaucrats, local and internationals run for a census that put the cart before the horse, and now that is here they do not look at the data to get inspired and to do the job. They again and again parade around demography of war. They want the past of ethnic cleansing, forced migrations, to frame the future rigidly, exclusively and become the invincible horizon of collective desperation.

We the citizens, residents, hosts, to build, sustain, feed our own independent critical thinking as people of the year 2016, we desperately need computer literacy, media literacy and with these produce new information, build a different knowledge, and dismantle once for all the too many deadly lies produced by leading political parties.

This late, imperfect, incomplete and contested census is more than scary  but the data can push the people to stop lack behind.

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