Data & Development: Reality check for Post-2015 agenda?

The UN Statistical Commission discussed the challenges of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This included implementation, measuring or monitoring progress as well as accountability. This includes a pragmatic look at the available data and implications for the Sustainable Development Goal indicators. Linkages between different agendas being negotiated in parallel such as Financing for Development, Post-2015 and Climate were starkly noticeable.

The 46th session of the Statistical Commission was held at the United Nations Headquarters, New York from 3 to 6 March 2015. The Commission attempted to tackle the issue of data in support of the post-2015 development agenda.

There seemed to be agreement that the preliminary list of indicators was premature --a roadmap for the development and implementation of the indicator framework by the next Commission in 2016 was endorsed. The Commission also endorsed an Interagency and Expert group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG) and a High-level Group (HLG) for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for post-2015 implementation process. The HLG should ensure that monitoring is nationally owned. Furthermore, there appeared to be agreement that the indicator framework should not be perceived as a discrete agreement to be adopted at a single point in time; there must be scope for further elaboration of it in the coming years.

Broader measures of progress

The Post-2015 development agenda aims to be ambitious, universally applicable and global in nature. This raises issues of accountability because there is no such thing as a global government and at best global governance is the promotion of norms or values. As a result, for the agenda to be successful in contributing to the achievement of sustainable development then there needs to be strong national ownership.

Each Member State can define development differently. If monitoring is to be nationally owned then what will ensure that the agenda remains ambitious and action orientated towards sustainable development?

At Rio+20[1], it was agreed that while the Post-2015 agenda would be applicable to all countries taking into account the different national realities, capacities and levels of development which included respecting national policies and priorities. This can mean a lot of things -- it could potentially be used as a loophole to prevent or mask progress. It has been argued that it potentially is a way of overcoming many deadlocks while ensuring equity (read Applicability of the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility to the financing for Development Agenda).

Transformative agenda for official statistics

Monitoring implementation at a national level should lead to an increased demand for disaggregation of data at the sub-national level. While the majority of National Statistical Offices have some useable data, it may not necessarily be “comparative across countries” and the new data needed could represent an unmanageable burden without adequate additional resources.  The private sector also own a lot of the potential new or innovative ICT data.

If something cannot be measured then it cannot be monitored accurately. If it cannot be monitored then it will be hard to evaluate progress or hold member states accountable for implementation. Some of the targets have subjective hard to measure elements.

In preparation for the UN Statistical Commission a number of surveys on existing practices to go beyond GDP to measure progress and on the availability of indicators for Sustainable Development Goals and associated targets were conducted to see what data already exists at a target and indicator level. The results of the survey were relatively encouraging with more than 60% of countries sampled able to get necessary data for at least 1 indicator for half targets (possibly due to the work they were doing to monitor the Millennium Development Goals). It also gave very important insight into country practices and availability of data. Some statisticians noted that measurement does depend on agreeing standards and this could be a way to measure targets that currently can’t be quantitatively measured (see Principles of using quantification to operationalize the SDGs targets).

But data comparability is difficult unless there are some global standards. This is not a new issue or specific to the SDGs. For example in the area of climate change, the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Good Practice Guidance for Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry[2] attempts to provide consistency. However, there can still be problematic issues because each country may collect similar (but different) data using different methodology and measurements and have similar (but not the same) definitions of “forest” or “land use”. This makes technical cooperation on issues such as leakage or deforestation understandably challenging because it is hard to create a regional comparison. If you scale this up to a global level then it is understandable why set standards or guidelines on methodologies may be needed.

Emerging issue: the data revolution

There is a lack of proper governance mechanisms to engage with all stakeholders and for using new data sources. Big data has potential as a “nowcasting tool” but it cannot replace traditional data until there is adequate legislative regulation. An expert highlighted the need to create institutional policy framework to use cellphone data and technological data due to privacy and security concerns if it is then being collected and synthesized for other purposes (See Big Data: Development Tool or Big Brother).  The balance between the scientific / technical aspects of the indicators and the political was repeatedly reiterated. Should new build on old? Replace it? How will the infrastructure to process the new be funded? And is there national capacity to handle the new influx of funds?  There appeared to be consensus that indicators should not be politically negotiated but instead they should be agreed by technical experts after the post-2015 development negotiations have finished.

It is becoming clear that investment in infrastructure, capacity building and creating ownership at a national level (especially by the National Statistical Office and civil society) is needed. The emerging gap between financial investment, ambitions and current practical realities could result in unusable goals. This is a challenge for the Financing for Development Conference to be held later this year in Ethiopia.

Financing Gap?

With the Financing for Development conference rapidly approaching -- a number of sources have highlighted a funding gap between the aspirations of a transformative agenda and the reality of financial commitments. There is a lack of proper governance mechanisms to engage with all stakeholders and legal framework for using new data sources. If innovative financing is being used to fund the “data revolution” then this should not limit investment in national statistical collection and should not come at the expense of building national capacity to collect data.

There are debates about national vs global indicators, traditional sources vs data revolution. But the success or failure is going to depend on whether there is finance, time and dedication to quality rather than merely speed.

We need change that result in substantive changes rather than tokenistic masking of deeper issues like inequality. There is a widening gap between the extremes of wealth and poverty. This is our chance to make an impact. Hopefully, the Statistical Commission will act as a reality check to inspire political commitment to concrete changes.

Read more:

The 2015 Declaration: Meeting Great Expectations (Maybe)

The development of an indicator framework for the post-2015 development agenda:  Towards a nationally owned monitoring system for the SDGs

The “A” Word: Monitoring the SDGs

Expert Group Meeting on the Indicator Framework for the Post-2015 Development Agenda




By Sabá Loftus