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This podcast was originally recorded on July 8th, 2014. 

Is the revolution upon us? When it comes to data, the development world seems to be saying yes, Yes, YES! To look beyond the hype, I invited Amanda Glassman, a CGD senior fellow and director of our global health policy program, to join me on the show to discuss a new report from the Data for African Development working group that looks at Africa’s statistical capacity, warts and all. It turns out that the revolution may not be all it’s cranked up to be, and that well-intentioned outsiders—donors especially—are too often part of the problem.

A partnership with the  African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, the working group found that in Africa such statistical fundamentals as taxes and trade, births and deaths, and growth and poverty are frequently outdated, inaccurate or simply unavailable.  How badly out of whack? In recent months Ghana and Nigeria have recalculated the size of their economies and come up with GDP estimates that are more than two-thirds larger.

I ask Amanda if big data is going to solve these problems. Is there hope that Africa will simply be swept up in a big data tsunami?

Amanda has her doubts. In much of Africa, she says, statistical capacity is at such a standstill: it has remained unchanged for the last ten years according to the index of statistical capacity published by the World Bank.

“Certainly big data and new technologies are very exciting, and offer some really interesting opportunities to collect new data… On the other hand, if countries don’t have a national statistical system in place that to just produce the basics, they will be missing opportunities to harness these new capabilities and the opportunities to use big data.”

Why the lack of progress? Amanda says there’s plenty of blame to go around (she calls it “collective guilt”), specifically a mis-match between the priorities of African governments and the donors. Governments need sub-national data to help guide budgetary and policy decisions, she explains, while external donors often want national-level data to make allocation decisions across countries.

How to resolve this tension? The working group proposes a data compact that would be initiated by an African president or minister of finance and draw upon the support of interested external funders. The compact would be a means for all interested parties to agree upon a phased set of actions to address data problems, and a method for tracking progress. The compact could even take the form of a pay-for-performance endeavor (see CGD’s Cash-on-Delivery Aid proposal for one such example).

“The idea would be to say ‘we’re going prioritize some aspect of the building blocks (such as data on births and deaths) that we have not achieved in our country,’” Amanda explains. Compact participants would agree on measures of progress in the accuracy, timeliness and openness of that data. A big, high-level political commitment could be useful in mobilizing the necessary funding from a combination of donors and governments, she says.

We close our conversation with a look toward the post-2015 development framework. Will the working group’s findings and recommendations become a part of that ongoing debate? Absolutely, Amanda replies. “We’ll do our very best to let it be known that this would be a good idea. Certainly were engaged in the process and talking to all the different people who are involved.”

To learn more about the working group’s findings and recommendations, listen to the Wonkcast, see Amanda’s blog post, or read the report