It's that time of year again when leaders get together at the United Nations to assess progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. Data to monitor and to achieve the Goals is quite rightly in the spotlight. So it’s worth asking: How are development partners doing in supporting countries to get the data they need?
The picture is mixed.
In data for development, we’re good at funding projects and products. Inspired by the promise of new technologies, lots of money is going to build new things. We were all grateful for the impressive platforms that showed us COVID-19 trends. The climate challenge, too, has spurred the creation of thousands of digital tools (like this one to track deforestation) and data platforms based on ever more sophisticated sources and methods. There are lots of solutions out there. But solutions only solve a problem when they are put to work.
It’s like we’re making pizza, and the money is all going toward the cheese before we’ve started kneading the dough. Despite investment in data tools and platforms to solve just about every global challenge, four in ten deaths around the world aren’t registered, and only one in six countries has enough data to report on agreed climate targets. People trying to build their national systems and link data to day-to-day decision making in governments are struggling to get the resources they need. We are building shiny tools on very shaky foundations.
One of the reasons for this mismatch is, of course, the money. First off, there’s not enough of it: Official development assistance for data and statistics has flatlined, as tracked by the invaluable PRESS report issued every year by Paris21. And, on top of that, existing funds are not always spent well. Since 2020, in response to COVID-19, donor support to health data grew to more than a third of all funding for data and statistics. This came at the expense of other sectors where support fell from a fifth to less than a tenth of total official development assistance for data and statistics.
This shows all too clearly the pick-and-mix approach often taken to funding data. Donors frequently support a specific sector, collect specific information they need, or invest in the latest new technology—not in ways that build systems as a whole. This could mean funding a survey on COVID-19 prevalence, for example, but not investing in a robust system for registering deaths. It’s creating a new platform to visualize climate data without investing to ensure the data within it is reliable. And this isn’t just about donors—governments often fail to prioritize data in national spending, finding it more politically attractive to fund things that are more tangible to their electorates.
The net result is uncertainty and fragmentation, where country data priorities are hostage to what donors think is important and where huge opportunities are missed to create efficiencies and develop systems that can be the foundation of modern data architecture.
None of this is new. We’ve been talking about it for a long time even as a few far-sighted donors and governments have been quietly showing us how to do it. Finally, others may be catching up. The urgency of tracking COVID-19 and the reality of climate change have shown all too starkly what happens when good data isn’t available to guide policy and change minds. As Ghana’s Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia* explained at the World Bank Spring meetings this year:
“Many governments do not really prioritize data collection because, traditionally, voters don't care about it. That is now changing. With pandemics, economic and food security issues, you have to use data to know where you are, act fast, and prove you are delivering for the people. Our view is that strengthening data systems can enable considerable economic returns by making programs more efficient by better targeting resources, by strengthening transparency, and by reducing waste.”
One of the key elements in the #DataValues agenda is action: We all need to be thinking about how data can drive action to respond to critical global challenges. We’re witnessing an opportunity to finally get political momentum on this critical issue. The next stop will be the UN General Assembly in September, where it’s time for leaders to step up and show they mean business when it comes to data by making new commitments to invest in systems.
Rather than relying on a single platform or tool, a broad base of data skills need to be built across governments. We need meaningful investments in better connectivity, data storage, and hardware that make using new tools and platforms feasible. Above all, we need leaders who are confident with new technologies and motivated to ensure they are governed for the benefit of all, leaders who know how to ask the right questions, understand what data they do and don’t need, and how to use it.
More funding for systems means all these amazing new platforms and tools will be used where they are needed most: by governments and civil society organizations saving money and making better and faster decisions at the sharp end of global crises. Data is worthless if it is not used to drive action, and all our tools and platforms will founder without the basic investments that enable them to be used.
*Vice-President Bawumia serves as a board member at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.