Written by Lysa John, an activist and researcher based in Mumbai, India who has been at the helm of large-scale national and global campaign efforts including Wada Na Todo Abhiyan and the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP); and most recently served as Head of Outreach in the Secretariat of the UN High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Agenda (2013).
In 2013, the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel pointed to a set of ‘transformational shifts’ that could serve as markers for ongoing debate on the scope of the global development agenda after 2015. In its assessment, a crucial challenge faced in relation to the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been the inadequacy of measuring development gains on the basis of averages. In such a context, ‘success’ at reducing national averages of poverty, hunger or maternal mortality, for instance, tends to disregard the failure of the system to reach the locations and communities who are most affected. The suggestion that the post-2015 development agenda must involve a quantum leap from the complacence of averages to the confidence of absolute numbers is central to the argument for transformation outlined in the Panel’s report.
The call for a ‘data revolution’ as a mechanism to enable this quantum leap has been received with enthusiasm and provided cause for an otherwise uncommon unison of views across the development spectrum. Policy think tanks and research institutions from Bogota to Bangladesh have led dialogues on the policies and practicalities of the data revolution. International financial institutions, including the World Bank, IMF and regional development banks, have jointly agreed to “collaborate in building the statistical capacity of governments… increasing the ability to disaggregate data to enhance the ability to deliver development opportunities to the most vulnerable people”. The UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals too has explicitly raised the question of how the data revolution can be harnessed for sustainable development, thus entrenching the proposal in the ongoing inter-governmental deliberations on the post-2015 agenda.
There is however a note of discordance in this otherwise happy harmony of voices. The quest for a quantum leap, a revolution of sorts for the ideal of open, reliable and comparable development data necessitates further probing of the means and ends of this imperative. A World Bank blog on open data for instance, talks of data as a tool to design actions and monitor performance and describes the data revolution as a global partnership to drive an “international acceleration in the quantity, quality, availability and usability of data for development….to address gaps in data use and coverage in developing countries”. A similar emphasis on “improving everything about data” underpins the orientation of agencies involved in the business of funding development. An action plan on data endorsed by multilateral development banks goes a step further in calling for a ‘Global Poverty Statistics Board’ and articulating the data revolution as a strategy for increased coherence across the donor community.
Other stakeholders however are emphatic about the need to invest in the ‘data revolution’ as a strategy for inclusion and accountability – a means to equip communities who need to be reached by governments and their agencies with tools to ensure that they are ‘not left behind’. The civil society alliance CIVICUS, for instance, argues that a revolution – by definition – must translate into a shift in the existing balance of power. In the context of data, efforts must be oriented towards establishing the conditions or mechanisms that will enable people, individually and as communities, to use and generate data to negotiate rights, access entitlements and ensure that public institutions are – as also suggested by the High Level Panel – ‘open, effective and accountable’.
In an ideal world, we are looking for an approach that combines all three objectives – stronger monitoring of development efforts, enabling communities to use information as a tool for access and inclusion, and bringing about greater public accountability of governance institutions. In reality however, technical and financial resources seem to be geared towards generating information to ensure aid accountability without adequately enhancing public engagement and institutional capacities at the national level. This is occurring despite lessons from the MDG effort that an investment in statistical capacity that is narrowly oriented towards servicing donor priorities may actually hinder development efforts by drawing resources and capacities away from nationally relevant information and development needs.
Groups like Article 19 observe that the MDGs acknowledged the need for transparency and access to information, but failed to incorporate the practical means to achieve it. Ideally, the post-2015 agenda will provide an opportunity for course correction. The demand for countries to adopt National Strategies for Statistical Development (NSDS), for instance, must go hand in hand with the call for the adoption of Right to Information laws and budget transparency procedures. Twelve years after the Millennium Declaration, over 174 countries have taken measures to improve their capacity to generate data on MDG indicators. In contrast, only 90 countries have adopted laws or policies in support of the Right to Information, while several countries have worked to undermine public access to information. Access to environmental information is yet another dimension that needs to be explored, and one that is particularly relevant to the ongoing discussion on sustainable development goals.
With just a little over a year to go before governments meet in September 2015 to adopt a new development agenda, it is imperative that we take a larger view of the data revolution, and make efforts to connect and multiply the actors and energies required to get it right. As Homi Kharas, Lead Author of the High Level Panel’s report, aptly points out: “the data revolution is a call for transparency and accountability. If taken seriously, it could transform development and perhaps be even more significant than the text of the post-2015 agenda itself”.