A Real Data Revolution: Unpacking the Necessity, Promises, and Challenges of Intersectionality Data for Development

There is no way that poverty can be fully tackled without policies designed to address the multiple disadvantages faced by people due to the combination of ascribed attributes including gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability, migration status, and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). And it is central to the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) overarching objective of inclusive development or ‘leaving no one behind.’ This means that intersectionality must be captured in data and embedded in evidence-based policies. But this is far from easy because, at present, the data is still limited. The Center for Global Development, Data2X and Open Data Watch have partnered to help improve the availability and use of this data.

The concept of intersectionality, first used to refer to the double discrimination experienced by Black women in the U.S., is increasingly part of feminist thinking globally; it was the buzz word at last year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and is likely to be again this year as the 68th session of the CSW unfolds at UN headquarters starting this week. The session’s priority theme is “Accelerating the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by addressing poverty and strengthening institutions and financing with a gender perspective.” To achieve equality for all people, the drivers for the most severe forms of poverty that are suffered by women who occupy intersecting group identities must be understood and prioritized. 

Intersectionality is also making its way into economic development and has resurfaced well-known ideas and practices, including conceptualizing ‘horizontal inequalities’ and implementing participatory development and social inclusion policies and programs. International development agencies, notably the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank, and some governments, such as Canada, Colombia, and Mexico, have begun work on intersectionality. The concept is embedded in both the gender equity and equality strategy put out in 2021 by the Biden-Harris administration for U.S. domestic and foreign aid agencies and the forthcoming gender strategy for 2024-2030 at the World Bank.

Intersectionality data presents unique challenges

Access to relevant and high-quality data is a first necessary step for the design of policies to combat the disadvantages associated with intersectionality. There are several good principles regarding intersectionality data and its close relative, inclusive data (see those put out by data feminism and the inclusive data charter), but a main challenge is how to translate them into practical guidance for governments and citizens in low- and middle-income countries (LICs and MICs).

Intersectionality data requires disaggregated and granular data, strong data governance systems, safeguards for protecting data confidentiality and privacy, and interoperability between different data sources. It also requires participatory approaches to data collection, data that can capture the ‘lived experience’ of individuals, and devolution of data ownership to those being measured (for more details see Data2X and ODW framework paper cited below). All this requires financial and technical support, a common challenge especially in LICs.

Civil registration and individual identification in the form of National IDs are key foundational data systems for capturing intersectionality, but what we call the ‘intersectionality data paradox’ challenge must be overcome: While intersectionality data counts and makes visible groups that have faced compounding forms of disadvantage to support greater rights and more equal outcomes, it can also cause backlash and expose individuals or groups to greater marginality and violence. This paradox embedded in intersectionality data is especially relevant for transgender individuals in cases where individual appearance and gender identity do not match the official government ID. Constitutional or legal protections (anti-discrimination laws) as well as robust governance and privacy arrangements for data, plus enforcement of laws and regulations, are needed to prevent potential backlash. The role of government in ensuring these protections is essential.

The requirements of intersectionality data imply paradigm shifts in data for development

The Center for Global Development, Data2X, and Open Data Watch (ODW) partnered to start a conversation with development stakeholders on how to identify and tackle the paradigm shifts needed for development data that come with integrating intersectionality: How do we think about and measure identities? What is the role of those being measured in collecting data (agency, data ownership and citizen generated data)? How can we devise systems to protect data privacy and at the same time count and include the excluded? How can we enhance the interoperability of data systems?... among others.

The first meeting in a series of conversations, hosted at CGD this past January, outlined a framework for intersectionality data, explored the synergies with citizen generated data, and tackled the complexities and potential complementarities of SOGI identification and IDs for Development (ID4D).

Departing from the traditional model for data production, the framework, developed by Data2X and ODW, includes four intersectionality data domains: data production, individual agency over data, the link from data to policy, and the final impact from policies using this data. Citizen generated data–a new movement in the international data ecosystem–has lots to offer to intersectionality data and there needs to be close collaboration, according to Francesca Perucci, from ODW, who spoke at this first meeting.

At this same meeting, Lee Badgett, from Koppa—The LGBTI+ Economic Power Lab, mapped SOGI data collection in LMICs and gave an overview of best practices for registering different gender identities, and CGD’s Alan Gelb mentioned two parallel transitions in foundational data systems: from paper-based registry systems towards digital ID systems and a change from binary (male/female) to non-binary gender identities. These parallel transitions should complement each other by strengthening the interoperability of individual records across multiple and diverse data bases, once issues of data privacy, data coverage, and data errors are addressed. A second meeting in the series, co-sponsored by UNFPA, is taking place on the sidelines of the 68th session of CSW. These meetings seek to foster collaboration and learning.

Advancing intersectionality data through international and national collaboration

CGD, Data2X, and ODW are exploring the establishment of an Intersectionality in Development Data Learning Collaborative to understand the basic technical and financial requirements for intersectionality data, learn lessons and best practices from past and current efforts, and stimulate collaboration and partnerships. We most welcome feedback, ideas, and expressions of interest.

The UN Data Revolution was framed around changing paradigms in the production, use and governance of data systems, all in service of meeting the SDGs. Intersectionality data can help propel real changes in all these aspects of data systems, but this will require international and national coordination and steadfast commitment, financial and technical resources, and hard work.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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