SDGs: ‘Gaps in data coverage are most likely to exclude the poorest people’

Claire MelamedCIVICUS speaks to Dr Claire Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, an open, independent, multi-stakeholder network aimed at harnessing the data revolution for sustainable development. Its network includes hundreds of data champions representing the full range of data producers and users from around the world, including governments, statistics agencies, companies, civil society groups, international organisations, academic institutions and foundations.

Why is data important?

Data can help governments improve policy-making and service delivery, including aligning budgets with needs. It can also help citizens and civil society groups to have a voice: to make better decisions and hold leaders accountable for their actions. Private companies use data to build capacity and drive entrepreneurship and innovation. In other words, data is a major potential driver of sustainable development. The problem is that very important decisions affecting development around the world are often based on incomplete, inaccessible, or simply inaccurate information.

If you’re missing in the data, then you’re missing in the decisions on budgets and policies that are made with that data. A government is not going to build a road or a school or a hospital for people that it doesn’t know are there, and it’s not going to solve a problem it can’t see.

Of course, not all governments want to solve those problems, and data is also an important tool for civil society advocates who want to highlight problems or put a spotlight on inequality. We’ve all been asked ‘show me the numbers’, and it’s really important that advocates can do that.

What is the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and what work do you do?

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is a growing network of hundreds of partners from governments, multilateral institutions, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations (UN), and academia. What they have in common is a desire to use data to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We’re coming up to our fifth birthday in September 2020.

We help governments, civil society groups and others who want to use data to improve their work to find the best solutions to their problems, and then put them into practice. Data is not only about numbers and platforms, it’s also about people, relationships and institutions. So we put a lot of effort into working with governments, the UN and others over the long term, so that good innovations are adopted in a sustainable way that builds trust and respects people’s rights, while also solving practical problems and helping governments deliver.

One of the things we focus on is how data can better represent the lives of the people who are the least powerful. This is partly about making sure that everyone is represented in the data. Through the Inclusive Data Charter we bring together a wide range of actors to make specific plans and commitments to improve their data on the most marginalised people.

We also believe that people can represent themselves through data. We recently worked with a group of civil society organisations to publish a guide on citizen-generated data (CGD), which is about people collecting data that represents their own experiences and what they think is important, and then feeding that into government systems to influence decisions about budget and policies. It’s already being tested in Kenya, working with the National Statistical Office, and we would love to work with other groups to use it and make it better.

How available is the data required to monitor progress towards the SDGs?

The availability of data on the SDGs is highly variable. In general, issues such as health and education, which were included in the monitoring framework of the Millennium Development Goals, have better data coverage than new issues such as the environment or governance. However, even for those issues where there is some data, it is often out of date or has gaps in coverage. Gaps in coverage are most likely to exclude the poorest people.

A large number of the indicators relating to civic space and participation are still ‘tier 2’, meaning that the data is not yet regularly produced. This is the case with SDG 16.7 (‘ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels’), 16.10 (‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’) and 17.17 (‘encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships’). There has been progress in developing methodologies, but the next step is for countries to begin to collect the data regularly and use it to inform their policy-making.

We have been working with civil society groups to increase the use of CGD for the SDGs. The guide to CGD that I mentioned is being tested in Kenya is one example of a tool that will be useful in increasing civil society voice in SDG monitoring and delivery.

How would you assess state reporting on SDG commitments, given their universal and interdependent nature?

It is highly variable. No country is yet collecting all the data that is needed, and in some cases there are gaps that are limiting the ability of civil society to hold governments to account.

Over the past couple of years, we have provided support to a number of countries, including Costa Rica, Kenya, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, to define their priorities and make plans to improve their data in key areas. We’re already seeing improvements in how governments are using data for agriculture, environmental management, water and other areas.

We are working with the World Bank Group, the UN and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on the ‘Data For Now’ initiative to scale up the use of real-time, dynamic, disaggregated data to achieve and monitor the SDGs. We aim to put tested methodologies to use to give governments and civil society groups the information they need to make the right decisions to achieve the SDGs. ‘Data For Now’ is working with governments to increase the timeliness of data in different sectors, including Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, Mongolia, Nepal, Paraguay, Rwanda and Senegal.

Are current pressures on multilateralism impacting on progress on SDG commitments?

Most definitely. The crisis of multilateralism is having a negative impact, in two ways. There are some goals, such as those on climate, which can only be achieved through multilateral action, which is particularly difficult in the current political climate. Additionally, if multilateralism is seen as less important, then the effect of peer pressure and the influence of global norms will be reduced, weakening government incentives to take actions on the SDGs.

Get in touch with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data through their website, where you can also sign up to the newsletter ‘Our World in Data’, or follow @Data4SDGs and @clairemelamed on Twitter.