The extreme poverty of data

 in the Financial Times: “As finance ministers gather this week in Washington DC they cannot but agree and commit to fighting extreme poverty. All of us must rejoice in the fact that over the past 15 years, the world has reportedly already “halved the number of poor people living on the planet”.

But none of us really knows it for sure. It could be less, it could be more. In fact, for every crucial issue related to human development, whether it is poverty, inequality, employment, environment or urbanization, there is a seminal crisis at the heart of global decision making – the crisis of poor data.

Because the challenges are huge and the resources scarce, on these issues more maybe than anywhere else, we need data, to monitor the results and adapt the strategies whenever needed. Bad data feed bad management, weak accountability, loss of resources and, of course, corruption.

It is rather bewildering that while we live in this technology-driven age, the development communities and many of our African governments are relying too much on guesswork. Our friends in the development sector and our African leaders would not dream of driving their cars or flying without instruments. But somehow they pretend they can manage and develop countries without reliable data.

The development community must admit it has a big problem. The sector is relying on dodgy data sets. Take the data on extreme poverty. The data we have are mainly extrapolations of estimates from years back – even up to a decade or more ago. For 38 out of 54 African countries, data on poverty and inequality are either out-dated or non-existent. How can we measure progress with such a shaky baseline? To make things worse we also don’t know how much countries spend on fighting poverty. Only 3 per cent of African citizens live in countries where governmental budgets and expenditures are made open, according to the Open Budget Index. We will never end extreme poverty if we don’t know who or where the poor are, or how much is being spent to help them.

Our African countries have all fought and won their political independence. They should now consider the battle for economic sovereignty, which begins with the ownership of sound and robust national data: how many citizens, living where, and how, to begin with.

There are three levels of intervention required.

First, a significant increase in resources for credible, independent, national statistical institutions. Establishing a statistical office is less eye-catching than building a hospital or school but data driven policy will ensure that more hospital and schools are delivered more effectively and efficiently. We urgently need these boring statistical offices. In 2013, out of a total aid budget of $134.8bn, a mere $280m went in support of statistics. Governments must also increase the resources they put into data.

Second, innovative means of collecting data. Mobile phones, geocoding, satellites and the civic engagement of young tech-savvy citizens to collect data can all secure rapid improvements in baseline data if harnessed.

Third, everyone must take on this challenge of the global public good dimension of high quality open data. Public registers of the ownership of companies, global standards on publishing payments and contracts in the extractives sector and a global charter for open data standards will help media and citizens to track corruption and expose mismanagement. Proposals for a new world statistics body – “Worldstat” – should be developed and implemented….(More)”