The Incredible Challenge of Counting Every Global Birth and Death

Jeneen Interlandi at The New York Times: “…The world’s wealthiest nations are awash in so much personal data that data theft has become a lucrative business and its protection a common concern. From such a vantage point, it can be difficult to even fathom the opposite — a lack of any identifying information at all — let alone grapple with its implications. But the undercounting of human lives is pervasive, data scientists say. The resulting ills are numerous and consequential, and recent history is littered with missed opportunities to solve the problem.

More than two decades ago, 147 nations rallied around the Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations’ bold new plan for halving extreme poverty, curbing childhood mortality and conquering infectious diseases like malaria and H.I.V. The health goals became the subject of countless international summits and steady news coverage, ultimately spurring billions of dollars in investment from the world’s wealthiest nations, including the United States. But a fierce debate quickly ensued. Critics said that health officials at the United Nations and elsewhere had almost no idea what the baseline conditions were in many of the countries they were trying to help. They could not say whether maternal mortality was increasing or decreasing, or how many people were being infected with malaria, or how fast tuberculosis was spreading. In a 2004 paper, the World Health Organization’s former director of evidence, Chris Murray, and other researchers described the agency’s estimates as “serial guessing.” Without that baseline data, progress toward any given goal — to halve hunger, for example — could not be measured…(More)”.