Delivering on the Data Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa

July 10, 2014

By Alex Ezeh, Executive Director, APHRC and Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy

Since the term “data revolution” was coined in the High-Level Panel report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, there has been a flurry of activity to define, develop and drive an agenda that will transform the way development statistics are collected, used, and shared the world over. And this makes sense – the new development agenda, regardless of its details, will rely on accurate data to assess progress.

But nowhere in the world is the need for better data more urgent than in Sub-Saharan Africa – a region with perhaps the most potential for progress under a new development agenda. Despite a decade of rapid economic growth in most countries, the accuracy of the most basic data –indicators like GDP, kids attending school and vaccination rates- remains low and improvements have been sluggish.

Over the past year, the Center for Global Development (CGD) and the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) co-chaired the Data for African Development Working Group to explore the root causes and challenges surrounding slow progress on data in Sub-Saharan Africa and identify strategies to address them. The Working Group’s final report offers insight on where governments and donors should focus their efforts to deliver on the data revolution in the region:

• Challenges with data are largely systemic and political: The challenges surrounding the production and use of basic data are often not technical, but the result of underlying political economy and systemic challenges. The Working Group identified four primary challenges:


Governments and donors should focus on the “building blocks” of national statistics: There have been gains in the frequency and quality of censuses and household surveys in sub-Saharan Africa, but national statistical systems in the region remain weak. Governments and donors should focus on the “building blocks” of national statistics systems – or data intrinsically important to the calculation of almost any major economic or social welfare indicator. These include: births and deaths; growth and poverty; tax and trade; sickness, schooling and safety; and land and environment. Improving the accuracy, timeliness, and availability of these statistics will be critical to the success of the post-2015 development agenda, across every sector.

• Actions in pursuit of a Data Revolution should be country-specific and government-led: For a truly sustainable data revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa, changes must be initiated and led inside governments in coordination with donors and civil society. To this end, the Working Group identified three strategies:

1. Fund more and fund differently by allocating more domestic funding to improving national statistics (thus reducing donor dependency) and experimenting with pay-for-performance agreements with donors to enhance mutual accountability for progress on improving the core statistical products.

2. Build institutions that can produce accurate, unbiased data by enhancing the functional autonomy of national statistical offices, and experiment with new institutional models like public-private partnerships to improve data collection and dissemination.

3. Prioritize the accuracy, timeliness and availability of the data building blocks by building quality control mechanisms into data collection and analysis and encouraging open data.

Where do we start? Try a Data Compact: A data compact could help mobilize and focus domestic and donor funding for progress on national statistical priorities. Data compacts would allow governments and donors to express intent to fund and progress on the critical “building blocks” of a national statistics system over multiple years, with clear and verifiable measures of progress, and provide a country-specific framework to innovate on funding mechanisms, engaging civil society and mobilizing new technologies for data collection and dissemination.

Bottom line: The Data Revolution must help modify the relationship between donors, governments, and producers of statistics to work in harmony with national statistical priorities. And both countries and donors will need to experiment with new approaches – not revert to business as usual – to truly revolutionize the way data is collected, used and made public.

Read more about the Working Group’s findings and recommendations in the final report and brief. APHRC and CGD will continue to inform and track actions as the data revolution takes shape, and we welcome your feedback at and on Twitter #data4dev @aphrc.

This is a joint post by Alex Ezeh, Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center, and Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development. They co-chaired the Data for African Development Working Group.