Top Four Take Home Messages From The UN World Data Forum & a Call for Increased Political Will

January 24, 2017

APHRC has long been involved in efforts to improve data for African development, even before the term “data revolution” was coined in 2014.  According to its report Delivering on a Data Revolution in sub-Saharan Africa:

“Good-quality data are essential for country governments, international institutions, and donors to accurately plan, budget, and evaluate development activities. Without basic development metrics, it is not possible to get an accurate picture of a country’s development status or improve social services, achieve [the Sustainable Development Goals], and improve prosperity for all.”

The simple goal of the first-ever World Data Forum held last week in South Africa was to intensify cooperation across data and statistics stakeholders to harness momentum for measuring progress against the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal global agenda.  It was co-hosted by the United Nations (UN) Statistics Division, and Statistics South Africa exceeded that expectation. The Forum brought together all levels of professionals from National Statistical Offices (NSOs), donors, data-related think tanks, academics, civil society and others. The Forum is the result of a main recommendation of the November 2014 report A World that Counts, the product of the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert And Advisory Group on Data Revolution for Sustainable Development.

Over the course of three days of workshops, discussions, capacity building, and sharing best practices and promising approaches, there were several very honest facilitated discussions about why accelerating the data revolution, especially in developing contexts such as sub-Saharan Africa, is critically important, and how to do so.

Over the course of the Forum, several imperatives kept re-emerging:

  1. Data producers and users must speed up!

But we must be cautious about how and in what direction.  Speeding up cannot be at the expense of data communities’ commitments to address inequity to “leave no one behind.” This means access to data, protection of data, and disaggregation by gender, income quintile, subnational geography, and age (and 60+ or 65+ is far too broad a category – it doesn’t make sense to lump 65 year-olds together with 85 year-old; we don’t do that with any other age groups. Older people have different needs!)

  1. Civil Registration and Vital Statistics are a must!

Decision-makers are simply guessing about national trends without quality (accurate, timely, machine-readable, and disaggregated) data on the building blocks of data provided by Civil Registration and Vital Statistics – births, deaths, causes of death, marriage, and divorce.

For those investing in CRVS as a starting point, the World Health Organization recently created a mortality tracking start up list for low-resource countries starting to track deaths. More than ever before, there are tools and funding available to do it. There are no excuses for inaction.

As Yusuf Murangwa, director general of the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda said during his plenary remarks:

“CR is a major building block,” but we’re not investing in it. We don’t know how many kids are born each month, but we know we need vaccines. When too many vaccines are purchased, money is wasted. Too few, and lives are at risk. Even when an adequate amount is purchased, we don’t know where the children live. “Investing in data and statistics is expensive, but not investing is even more expensive,” he concluded.

  1. Data is not the answer; understanding the data’s narrative and acting on it is. Understanding precedes action. National data architecture is needed to support all levels of decision-making, including at the citizen level so that “regular people” have access to their own data, including tools to interpret it

Data alone is not enough; it must be analyzed and used. According to one presenter, too many countries wait for DHS data every five years instead of using and analyzing their own civil registration data when it is available. Countries should use their own data to establish baselines and monitor progress, whether against domestic goals or global ones.

Researchers, when sharing their results, like to say, “The data say it all.” But data are silent – it’s analysts who bring their interpretation and context to the data to make sense of it.

Numbers are convincing, and stories are compelling.  Together they are a winning combination. Let’s get smarter about how to do both pieces of the equation.

  1. Investment in data systems is for the long-term, not a one-off. Collaboration between donors will lead to faster, better coordinated efforts. Donor efforts of two years, even five years don’t meet the long-term needs. Capacity building is a process and its strategy needs to be targeted, and should start to move from the supply side to the demand side.

As Oliver Chinganya, director of the African Centre for Statistics at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) said during the Forum, the field is crowded with short-term bilateral and multi-lateral capacity building, but the resident capacity builders – the African universities and organizations, need funding to do the ongoing technical assistance and capacity building. NSOs also must have a retention strategy for keeping their talent to protect their investments in human capital.

Dr. Albina Chuwa, the director general of Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics, said the emphasis must be on improving existing systems, not inventing new ones, for cost and efficiency’s sakes. This practical idea means that in some contexts, incremental progress is more feasible than a full “revolution”.

Country champions – including the leadership of DGs and SGs—have to fight for the prioritization of country investment as a priority. The time is now.

It all boils down to political will, especially on prioritizing national investment in its statistical systems. Political will, leadership, and values all go hand-in-hand, and these are essential for action on development, data and statistics, and others critical issues facing countries.

Throughout the Forum, it was clear that the voice of users of data and statistics was very under-represented. In workshops on data advocacy and partnering with think tanks, both NSOs as well as think tanks articulated that want their research to be used more.

At the next Forum, including a track on improving linkages with users and improving the demand side of the data equation will be imperative to help ensure that data and statistics don’t die in an echo chamber, but live a fruitful life in real-world decision making.