Is data the missing SDG?

Is Data the Missing SDG? 

By: Sabirah Oniyangi and Ashley Hill 

In 2015, the United Nations put into practice the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a specified continuation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Plain and simple, SDGs are a strategic blueprint for improving health and education, reducing inequality, and catalyzing economic growth. With a 15-year time span, not only is it necessary for the proposed SDGs to be completed by year 2030, but there also needs to be country-specific evidence to validate the achievements of the ambitious agenda. Without data, measuring, tracking and monitoring progress is virtually impossible. A country like Nigeria, for example, last carried out a National Census over a decade ago and even the results from those are highly politicized and contentious.

More recently, the Nigerian President, President Muhammadu Buhari, complained that data collected by international development organizations, such as the World Bank, is inaccurate. These comments were in response to the World Bank estimates alleging that Nigeria has more people living in poverty than India. The President claimed that these statistics were “wild estimates” having “little relation to the facts on the ground.” Yes, the President is entitled to his opinions, but without data to back them up or counteract the assertions, they simply remain opinions. The same can be said about the “achievement” of global efforts to impact the masses and improve the overall quality of life.

What’s the Big Deal?

Too often, data is used to portray a particular story to viewers. Though data can and should be used in this capacity, it is also important to note that it should portray an accurate story appropriate for its context. According to an article published by the UN, about 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. Despite this claim, there is still an issue with the lack of data, especially when it comes to the absence of data needed to understand the “why” of declines, improvements, and trends. As outlined by the United Nations’ classification, there are three levels distinguishing the quality of data indicators:

Level I

there is a data collection methodology and available data

Level II

methodology is available but no data

Level III

there is no methodology to collect data and there is no existing data

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation recently released its African Governance Report and found various challenges with data. The report states that only one-third of data sources for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators on Africa are from direct country sources and, on average, fewer than 40% of the indicators for the SDGs have sufficient data to track progress accurately on the continent. 

A prime example of insufficient data can be seen throughout the health industry and on the climate front. Only a small fraction of deaths in most parts of Africa are recorded. With the exceptions of South Africa and Zimbabwe, often less than 25% of deaths are recorded. As a result, adult death rates are routinely estimated based on extrapolations from child mortality rates. There is often inaccurate data and various organizations use different models to estimate deaths. In countries with a high prevalence of HIV/ AIDS it becomes even trickier. Not only are these data extrapolation methods inaccurate, they have large implications for public health in these regions.

One of the often neglected areas of missing data in Africa is in weather forecasting data. Climate change poses new and real challenges to the entire world and the continent of Africa is no different. The results of climate change have led to droughts and famine and even extreme conflict, such as in the case of Northern Nigeria. Farmers in countries like Tanzania could greatly benefit from weather data to predict heavy rainfall and rapid climate changes. This would help them be better prepared, and keep their sources of living and income.

So, Why is Data Missing and What Does it Mean?

Accurate data is difficult to acquire across Africa for a variety of reasons, such as limited telecommunication networks and the lack of training provided to research and data collection professionals. However, cost can be seen as one of the main drivers. The U.S. government, United Nations, and World Bank are still uncertain about the amount spent on data collection and utilization in developing nations. According to the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, it is estimated that about $650 million per year is needed to collect data, in which current efforts are heavily underfunded by $400 million to be exact. Despite improvements made by implementing innovative methods of collecting data, such as via mobile device, the lack of infrastructure for telecommunication networks and internet access still make it challenging for both those providing and collecting data. When looking at internet access, Africa significantly falls behind the rest of the world, which means that this is also the case for its data (see Figure 1).

Without adequate data, human and economic development will remain stagnant. Not convinced? Just look at the way Nigeria became Africa’s biggest economy overnight. Data is the basis of policy decisions, government planning, development activities, and the way in which assistance is designed for those who need it most. Imagine setting a goal, never checking to see if you made progress, and repeatedly setting the same aim in hopes that one day you’ll achieve it. That’s a world without data.

Is data the missing SDG?

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