Is a Top-Down Data Revolution Enough to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?
The United Nations (UN) is currently in the process of adopting the next development agenda for post-2015. Over the weekend, more than 150 heads of state met at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to commemorate the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals build off of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and will guide future global development policies and development agendas for the next fifteen years.
The agenda is an ambitious one. The current count of the SDGs sits at 17 goals and 169 indicators, a significant increase from the 8 goals and 21 indicators of the MDGs. The reason behind this extensive list of development goals is the comprehensive global conversations that took place to hammer out the agreement’s details. In an unprecedented effort, the UN held 11 thematic and 83 national consultations and launched a My World Survey to capture perceptions and opinions on what should comprise the next development agenda.
An ambitious agenda, however, is not necessarily the problem. The issue is the ability (or the inability) of the global community to monitor and track the progress of each and every indicator. Skepticism surrounds the goals for these exact reasons. Some critics characterize the SDGs as unsustainable and unmeasurable. In our current resource-constrained environment, can countries really afford to fund and measure the progress of 17 goals for 15 years? While critiques should be welcomed, the signatory pen will soon be to paper. It is now up to the global development community to drive the progress of their commitments. Part of achieving that progress will be focusing on the data revolution.
Proponents of the agenda, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs, frame the goals’ achievement as contingent upon harnessing the power of data. The UN sides with this school of thought and has called for a UN Data Revolution. Out with the old, in with the new. It is an upheaval of the traditional methods of measurements, an insurgency of innovation, if you will. Despite the clamor at the top of the pyramid, however, one cannot help but wonder, don’t most revolutions start at the bottom? Can we really achieve these new goals with a top-down revolution?
But weariness need not equal defeat. Here is what we must do if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals:
In order to mitigate apprehensions toward a top-down data revolution, we must orientate some of our focus towards the grassroots. This should be done with an intense focus on increasing the capacity of national statistics offices and public agencies while improving data accuracy, data literacy, and data value. Data value refers to the government perception, at the national and subnational level, that data is not only important but necessary for effective planning, monitoring, and evaluation. Politicians and citizens alike must be energized about data’s potential to improve service delivery, public management, accountability, and transparency within their country.
This feat won’t come cheap; estimates for bolstering the IT and statistical capacity of all lower-income countries are projected at $1billion per year. Financing these initiatives is an entirely different can of worms. Domestically-raised revenues, official development assistance, and private investments are the current appointees to foot the bill. Whether or not this is palpable is a discussion for another blog.
Go Innovative (and get it in real time)
A key lesson learned from the MDGs was the need for more up to date data. There is a crucial need to decrease the lag in time for this next agenda. Fortunately, there has been an explosion of innovative information and communication technology which may help quell this problem. Technologies similar to DevTrac, and UReport should be utilized to collect data at the local level in real time. The supply of the technology is the easy part. The real challenge is achieving use and uptake of such technology. The question now will be whether we can harness these innovative data collection regimes effectively and thus measure the SDG indicators more frequently.
Go for the Gaps
One concern about relying on innovative technologic data collection methods is that we may further marginalize disadvantaged groups that lack the means of technical infrastructure (cell phones, sufficient bandwidth, internet connectivity, etc.). As we revolutionize data collection, we must ensure that we are capturing the most vulnerable populations: the elderly, young girls and women , the disabled, and others. As the revolution rages on, we must be sure to include those who are most often excluded.
While the ink is already drying on the SDG declaration, the discussion of statistical measures and data collection is still ripe. As the development community moves forward with this new agenda, these three themes (go local, go innovative, and go for the gaps) must drive that discussion. The development community should continue to promote, but must also invest in, innovative data systems and information and communication technologies (ICTs). The success of these effort are contingent upon the arming of revolutionaries at the bottom and patiently waiting to see if those at the top follow up the agenda with action. Will the revolution be powerful enough to dismantle the traditional data-archy? We will have to wait and see.
Deirdre Appel is a Master’s candidate in Global Policy Studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
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