Von Noemi Schramm – Any target achieved as part of the post-2015 agenda is only as good as the data behind it. Through a simple change of data source, the aspired goals might be easier to achieve. Setting the technically right targets and producing high quality data is therefore crucial for any real success in sustainable development.
At the very heart of the new sustainable development goals (SDGs) will be an immense amount of data. On the one hand, this data provides the goals its right to exist, as the post-2015 agenda is derived from a mass of numbers indicating there is still a need to address poverty and other challenges for sustainable development. On the other hand, these numbers also allow us to set targets and therefore determine the pace and direction of the future sustainable development agenda. The progress that is achieved depends crucially on the targets chosen and the quality of the available data to measure this progress. The illusion evolves because a change in the methodology or database affects the numbers which these targets are based on. A change in data source could for example indicate a decline in poverty but actual poverty has remained the same. The High Level Panel on the 2015 Development Agenda therefore calls for a New Data Revolution, and opens the discussion on new data standards and targets for the post2015 agenda. The difficulties of tracking progress consistently are highlighted by focusing on poverty. However, the challenges can be generalised for the whole sustainable development agenda.
Importance of adequate reflection of poverty
One of the first priorities needs to be to adequately reflect the poorest of the poor in databases. This has not been done so far. Recent estimates point to an omitted 300-500 million of the bottom billion, who are not part of any database. The vast majority thereof lives in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is puzzling how international development frameworks and reports yield most of their representativeness by missing out the poorest, which after all the core of any sustainable development process. Furthermore, a more representative geographical and societal coverage goes along with higher quality data. More access should be granted to national databases. This would also increase the accuracy of reports, as researchers working with the data would serve as part of an international quality check. On the other hand, national statistics offices should receive sufficient and stable funding, which in most developing countries is not the case.
A more representative geographical and societal coverage goes along with higher quality data.
Accountability pressure for the post-2015 agenda is even higher than during the MDGs due to their broad scope and agenda setting. Therefore, the data generation process needs to be regarded as an essential part of the development process. The new goals are more demanding in terms of complexity, as the comprehensive goals need to be broken down to a few clear indicators.
The challenge of a new and accurate measure of development
The task is to define technically appropriate targets. It remains a major challenge how to adequately reflect livelihoods of people in a measurable target. Progress during the MDGs was evaluated with the USD 1.25 poverty line, which reports the percentage of people of a country living with less than USD 1.25 per day. This is measured in purchasing power parity, but does not necessarily reflect actual living standards, local customs or the basic needs of the people. It was set relatively randomly by the World Bank in 1995 following observations of a few countries’ poverty lines. But a Senegalese person living with less than USD 1.25 per day, having free access to health care and a strong community network might consider himself rich compared with a Haitian living below the threshold with poor infrastructure. Poverty is relative and a societal reference point is needed to compare different livelihoods. The post-2015 goals shift the focus away from targeting only the extremely poor in developing countries to a more comprehensive goal. A new measure for poverty and the other agreed targets is needed. One interesting assessment of poverty is the Multidimensional Poverty Index introduced by a consortium of researchers, which reflects aspects other than pure income as well. However, this practice is rather data heavy.
A New Data Revolution: a precondition for successful post-2015 goals
Therefore, the only way to measure whether the post-2015 agenda and its SDGs will actually improve things is to invest in a new data revolution: providing better and more accurate data and allowing a real assessment of progress made. The new data revolution mentioned in the report of the High Level Plenary is essential and deserves to receive more attention. Otherwise we might end up with something similar as the MDGs, where a declining poverty ratio is highlighted as a major achievement, even though the world’s poorest region Sub-Saharan Africa did not see a lot of this achievement. Something as technical and on the first view not related to actual progress like a new approach to data and measurements might put the spotlight back where it should be: to the achievement of sustainable development and to places where people persistently live in extreme poverty.
Noemi Schramm studied Development Economics in Zurich and Nottingham. She lives and works as an Overseas Development Institute Fellow for the Ministry of Health in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
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