Development co-operation: Some facts Hans Rosling taught us

Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, Chair, OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC)

I often wonder how to best show the impact of our combined efforts to eradicate poverty. Having worked on development issues for many years, I have seen the results first-hand. I have listened to women sharing how improved maternal care has improved their family’s lives, and I have seen how access to financial services has turned unemployed youngsters into entrepreneurs who now employ others. While we all have examples of development co-operation that works, we sometimes lack the hard evidence, the facts, the data. When confronted with scepticism, our stories often become anecdotal examples of little value.

Solid data is essential in showing progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are in the midst of a data revolution where the combination of big data, open data and the rapid proliferation of information technology will radically boost our knowledge and understanding. But what will happen in the least developed and conflict-ridden countries where there are huge data gaps, or data of very poor quality?

While many members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) provide support for the collection and processing of statistics in developing countries, there is more work to be done. DAC donor countries are only just tapping into the potential of big data for development co-operation.

To focus this year’s report on data for development is both timely and important. We must invest more in data. The global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires facts and figures to show what works and what doesn’t. We all need statistics to show successes and setbacks in development.

I also like to think that we, by putting the focus on data for development, are paying tribute to Hans Rosling, a legendary professor and statistician. Sadly, Hans passed away earlier this year. No one has shown the importance of combining data sets to uncover new insights better than he did. No one has ever brought statistics to life  in the way Hans did. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to discuss development issues with Hans. He was straight-forward. He asked questions like, “Why do you spend so much money on these human rights and democracy programmes when you have no data to show they’re working?” He argued that we should invest more in children’s and women’s health because he could show the data that proved these had the best return on investment. He was also very encouraging and constructive when Sweden embarked on its open data journey (though he thought we should have broken down costs in more detail).

One of Hans’ most poignant messages, which I believe to be both very true and very easy to forget, was, “What you think you know may be wrong because the world is constantly changing. Check the data!” We all tend to stick to what we know and seek information to confirm our beliefs. Data therefore serves as a reality check as numbers do not lie.

We are two years into the implementation of the boldest and most far-reaching development agenda ever. We will end extreme poverty and at the same time stop climate change and the degradation of bio-diversity so that humans and nature can find a new balance. To monitor this, we have agreed to follow progress on more than 200 indicators in every single country even though we still lack much of the data today.

So, we need to keep modernising and improving aid statistics and data on financing for sustainable development. We need to increase our support for statistical capacity where it is needed and make better use of results data for policy and feedback to citizens. From my experience, the hardest part will be getting more investment to boost statistical capacity in partner countries. Donors know this is important but NGOs are not pressuring governments to spend more on this; neither is this an effort ministers will get media attention for.

The challenge is great, but the opportunities and gains are even greater. With more and better data we can show the much needed progress girls, boys, women and men are making around the world. With more and better data we can make better and more informed decisions on how to support families who strive for a decent life. With more and better data we can come closer to what Hans Rosling’s son Ola calls a world of “factfulness”, where opinions, however passionately held and articulated, are supported by facts.

Hans Rosling © 2014 Hervé Cortinat/OECD

* Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician, academic, statistician, and public speaker. He was Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet and co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which promotes the use of data to understand global development. Rosling passed away on 7 February 2017 at the age of 68.

References and links

OECD (2017), Development Co-operation Report 2017: Data for Development, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/dcr-2017-en

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Visit https://www.gapminder.org

Development Co-operation Report: Investing in data can make the difference

Catherine Bremer, OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate

The OECD’s just-published Development Co-operation Report 2017 calls on donor countries to invest more aid in improving statistical systems in developing countries, many of which are unable to produce reliable data in even basic areas such as records of births and deaths. A lack of good data makes it hard to measure the impact of development co-operation and see where best to focus future investments.

The report says that channelling just USD 200 million a year in additional development aid into building up poor countries’ statistical systems would make a big difference–a small sum compared to the USD 15 billion of foreign aid that was spent in 2016 hosting refugees in donor countries.

Good quality statistics are vital both to steer government policy in developing countries and to measure progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet with developing country statistics agencies all too often underfunded and understaffed, 77 countries are found to have inadequate poverty data and there are no data yet for two-thirds of the 232 SDG indicators. Even where data is available it is often not broken down in a way that enables comparisons between different population groups.

Aid providers should help developing countries to adopt digital technologies and non-traditional data sources to collect better statistics, the report says, noting that using computer tablets has improved census and survey data in Ethiopia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Uganda and anonymised big data helped Brazil overcome the Zika crisis. To get more out of digital data, countries will need to build up digital infrastructure and enforce legal, ethical and quality standards.

A survey in the new report finds that many donor countries are uncomfortable planning development assistance around data that is old, approximate or incomplete. They often resort to conducting their own unilateral and uncoordinated data collection to assess the impact of aid programmes.

A recent report by Open Data Watch, “The State of Development Data Funding 2016” says that, ideally, USD 3 billion should be invested annually for developing countries to meet SDG data demands. According to the “Partner Report on Support to Statistics 2016” by PARIS21, an international partnership hosted by the OECD that helps developing countries improve their statistical data, the amount of official development assistance (ODA) spent on building up poor countries’ statistical capacity was around USD 250 million a year over 2013-2015, less than 0.3% of total ODA.

You can read the report online here.

References and links

OECD (2017), Development Co-operation Report 2017: Data for Development, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/dcr-2017-en

Open Data Watch (2016), The State of Development Data Funding 2016, http://opendatawatch.com/the-state-of-development-data-2016/

PARIS21 (2016), Partner Report on Support to Statistics, http://www.paris21.org/node/2371

Visit http://www.oecd.org/dac/