The road to better data

Johannes Jütting at OECDInsightsTradition tells us that more than 3,000 years ago, Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai and came back down with 10 commandments. When the world’s presidents and prime ministers go to the top of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) mountain in New York late this summer they will come down with not 10 commandments but 169. Too many?

Some people certainly think so. “Stupid development goals,” The Economist said recently. It argued that the 17 SDGs and roughly 169 targets should “honour Moses and be pruned to ten goals”. Others disagree. In a report for the Overseas Development Institute, May Miller-Dawkins, warned of the dangers of letting practicality “blunt ambition”. She backed SDGs with “high ambition”.

The debate over the “right” number of goals and targets is interesting, important even. But it misses a key point: No matter how many goals and targets are finally agreed, if we can’t measure their real impact on people’s lives, on our societies and on the environment, then they risk becoming irrelevant.

Unfortunately, we already know that many developing countries have problems compiling even basic social and economic statistics, never mind the complex web of data that will be needed to monitor the SDGs. A few examples: In 2013, about 35% of all live births were not officially registered worldwide, rising to two-thirds in developing countries. In Africa, just seven countries have data on their total number of landholders and women landholders, and none have data from before 2004. Last but not least, fast-changing economies and associated measurement challenges mean we are not sure today if we have worldwide a billion people living in extreme poverty, half a billion or more than a billion.

Why does this matter? Without adequate data, we cannot identify the problems that planning and policymaking need to address. We also cannot judge if governments and others are meeting their commitments. As a report from the Centre for Global Development notes, “Data […] serve as a ‘currency’ for accountability among and within governments, citizens, and civil society at large, and they can be used to hold development agencies accountable.”…(More)”