Financing the data revolution: is anyone up for the challenge?

This post is written by Bill Anderson, Data and Information Architect at Development Initiatives

If you manage to read down to the last ten paragraphs of the draft outcome document for the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa this week you will find a section on Data. It contains firm commitments for implementing a data revolution for sustainable development. It echoes the priorities spelled out in the Africa Data Consensus that was endorsed in Addis Ababa three months ago and which is paving the way for the practical implementation of this revolution.

The outcome document highlights all the key challenges:

  • Timely and reliable data is essential for development decision-making.
  • Data needs to be disaggregated “by sex, age, geography, income, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and other characteristics relevant in national contexts”. To make people count you need to count people.
  • To achieve this, civil registration and administrative systems (such as health and education management information) need to become an integral part of national statistical systems.
  • National statistical systems need to be broadened into an ecosystem of data communities embracing “data and analysis from civil society, academia and the private sector”.
  • National ownership and prioritisation – “linking needs and support” – is essential.
  • Data needs to be turned into “useful, actionable information”.
  • Technical and financial support is required to build human, institutional and technological capacities.

Over the last year there have been numerous analyses and policy papers published highlighting the need for large investments of new money into national statistical capacity, civil registration and administrative systems.

Sustainable development requires sustainable data generated from sustainable systems. Few of these systems are quick-win, ‘plug and play’ interventions.

  • Enhancing the capacity of national statistics can involve legal reform, institutional building, technological infrastructures and human capacity – all of which take time.
  • Shifting the focus of statistics from national aggregation to sub-national disaggregation requires major investment in geospatial frameworks and technologies.
  • Introducing health and education management information systems means training staff in every last clinic and school.
  • Building functional civil registration systems capable of producing consistent, credible data is a mammoth long-term investment.
  • Continued funding of existing monitoring mechanisms alone – surveys in particular – at the expense of longer-term infrastructural investments is not a sustainable solution.

Meeting in Addis Ababa in March this year, African ministers of finance, planning and economic development committed to” providing adequate funds for the data revolution and data communities to ensure their sustainability”. While the maintenance of systems from secure domestic resources is critical for both the ownership and survivability of the data ecosystem, in many countries these resources are severely limited and donor support is crucial, particularly for building new systems and making major improvements to others.

With many donors being forced, through recession and accountability pressures, to prioritise short-term results-based funding it may be understandable that committing resources for a sustainable data revolution is going to be challenging. It is perhaps for this reason that, in the run up to the Financing for Development conference, very little new money has been put on the table.

The data revolution is not a packaged, time-bound intervention to be delivered in 2030. It is not optional. It is essential to the socio-economic development of all countries and will take as long as it takes. Would any developed country be satisfied relying on data on causes of death being derived from survey samples rather than a registry of deaths? And if not why should developing countries? Is this not what “Financing for Development” really means? Will donors find a way to support it?

1 Comment on "Financing the data revolution: is anyone up for the challenge?"

  1. Very good blog. The lack of investment in civil registration systems has been described (by Richard Horton) as one of the biggest development failures of the last 30 years.

    Are we talking about funding a data revolution or funding national statistical system? Are these one and the same? The reason I ask this is: What is so revolutionary about civil registration? Civil registration systems have been around and producing vital statistics for hundreds of years. The data revolution should not just be about new data sources, it should be about changing how governments, the public and the development community perceive statistics. The first step is for international development partners to start investing in national statistical capacities and administrative systems, such as civil registration and health information systems. If this is at the expense of a few household surveys, then so be it.

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