Data - The First Hurdle to Overcome to Attain the SDGs

Co-authored with Haishan Fu, World Bank Director of the Development Data Group in the Development Economics Vice Presidency.


With the start of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community must take a close look at what it will take to meet the ambitious set of targets. The availability of data will be essential to inform this debate. Data informs policymakers and development professionals about the impact of their decisions on development progress. It sheds light on the effectiveness of development policies, helps provide clarity on the nature of problems, and provides indicators to monitor and evaluate progress. While much attention is paid to the importance of data in monitoring outcomes (ex-post) and in informing policymakers about the severity of the problem at hand (ex-ante), data is also critical in tracking intermediate outcomes and determining whether the trajectory predicts that a country will meet - or miss ­ the SDG targets.

All data must be accessible if it is to be useful: Nobel Laureate and Economist Angus Deaton, for example, has emphasized the importance of "high quality, open, transparent, and uncensored data" in his work on poverty measurement; as an important element of the democratic process; a mechanism for citizens to monitor the effectiveness of governments.

One of the most pressing challenges facing many developing countries is simply a lack of data, even in priority areas. The problem is acute. Recent studies show that 29 of the world's poorest countries have no data at all to measure trends in poverty between 2002 and 2011. A further 28 countries had only one data point during the same period. This is a major constraint in the fight against poverty, and a major effort is needed to address it.

A fundamental method of collecting data is through household surveys, which are useful for analysing many dimensions of the wellbeing of individuals, including their income and consumption levels, their health, and their education. However, many countries conduct very few surveys, resulting in data gaps and inconsistent estimates.

Another important data source is in administrative records. In many countries, the registration of vital events provides an important source of statistics on demographic changes and trends that for example are critical in informing policy makers regarding education, health, and social (protection) policies. But many countries have weak vital registration systems. In fact, one of the SDG targets is to provide legal identity for all ­- including birth registration - by 2030.

It was for these reasons that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened an Independent Expert Advisory Group to make recommendations on how to create a "data revolution" to support sustainable development. The Group proposed "improvements in how data is produced and used; closing data gaps to prevent discrimination; building capacity and data literacy in "small data" and big data analytics; modernizing systems of data collection; [and] liberating data to promote transparency and accountability". The World Bank is pursuing these objectives in several key areas:

Improving Statistical Capacity. Over the last fifteen years, the World Bank has supported over 80 countries with technical and financial support to improve production of key official statistics. There have been promising results; in 1999, the average of an indicator of statistical capacity for World Bank borrowing countries was 54, out of a possible 100 points. In 2014, the average had risen to 68. Furthermore, between 2005 and 2014 over 93 percent of the world's people were represented in a population census, a significant improvement from the previous census round between 1995 and 2004. We intend to scale up this important work in the years ahead.

Harnessing the Data Revolution. One promising approach to stimulate a "data revolution" is to harness the "technology revolution". Collecting data through traditional methods such as face-to-face interviews can be challenging and costly, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected areas. Advances in technology enable innovative and cheaper methods based on mobile phones, mapping, sensors, and satellite imagery. To use these advances to improve data for development requires new partnership and collaboration between companies, institutions, and civil society. The World Bank Group is a founding anchor partner of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which was formally launched in September 2015. This will bring a wide range of stakeholders together, including technology companies, governments, international agencies, private foundations, and civil society. A landmark event - the first ever World Data Forum - is being planned for 2016 to catalyze the data revolution for the SDGs. And we are working with partners to launch a $100m fund to support the use of innovations in data collection, accessibility, and analysis. We will test and pilot a number of innovative approaches in the coming year.

Ensuring the availability of poverty data in the poorest countries. Gaps in poverty data are a major constraint to designing effective policies to improve the lives of poor people. The World Bank Group has launched a new program to ensure that the poorest countries have reliable poverty data, estimated to cost around $300 million every three years, on top of existing investments. This major household-level data collection effort will be discussed and coordinated with countries and partners in the months ahead.

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