Springtime for the Data Revolution

April 17, 2015

Overthrowing the unsatisfactory data status quo depends on more than declarations and calls to coordinate and partner. As we and others have noted (here and here), more and better funding is what’s needed to deliver on a data revolution.  

That need has just come into sharper focus. In a new report, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and collaborators estimate that the basic statistical capacity needed to measure GDP more accurately and track the Sustainable Development Goals requires a total of about $1 billion per year in the 77 International Development Association (IDA) and blend countries. While the report doesn’t estimate the difference between actual spending on data and the estimated need, it does call for an increase in current donor spending on data from about $364 million in 2014 (roughly 2 percent of Official Development Aid) to more than $500 million per year in the future.

Low-income countries rely on external funding for data and statistics work. SDSN has estimated that 52 percent of the costs of national statistical strategies will need to be externally funded in IDA and blend countries, based on donors’ median contributions in a sample of countries. Our earlier working group found this share is probably higher; many countries in sub-Saharan Africa fund almost all non-salary expenditures from donor sources. This means we need to think seriously about how the major development funders are going to help.

Right now, we internationals are going in lots of directions, with hundreds of flowers blooming.* Last month, an Africa Data Consensus was developed at a conference on the Data Revolution in Ethiopia sponsored by the AU-ECA Conference of Ministers. In addition to our own working group report with APHRC, a UN Independent Expert Advisory Group and the PARIS21 Informing a Data Revolution Project have also issued recommendations. PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation are partnering with country governments, private sector, and civil society to create local data hubs. Bloomberg Philanthropies recently launched Data for Health, an initiative to improve health data collection in 20 low- and middle-income countries. And the list goes on: the African Development Bank’s Open Data Platform for Africa, UNECA’s StatBase, UN Foundation’s Data2X, and Rockefeller Foundation-supported Data-Pop Alliance, among many others. These new blooms are planted in an already fertile field of long-standing donor-supported efforts like the Demographic and Health Surveys, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys, the International Household Survey Network, INDEPTH, etc., which continue to be engaged.

For a cohesive garden to grow from these separate blooms, more coordination is needed. The SDSN report acknowledges this and calls for a “Partnership for Development Data.” But a new international partnership in the existing data ecosystem won’t constitute a revolution, particularly not at the country level. A revolutionary garden necessarily means more money and better funding arrangements for national statistical systems, organized in a way that brings together the many interested, but uncoordinated, efforts taking place and that leverages greater domestic ownership, funding and use of data.   

More money and better funding arrangements for data will mean:

  1. Focusing on national data priorities. Everyone has their favorite indicator. But for donor funding to work differently, most new money should support National Statistical Development Strategy (NSDS) priorities. Yes, civil society and private sector are important. But we need to invest in the basics—as identified by NSDS—first.
  2. Leveraging domestic and other funding. Funding mechanisms like the Global Financing Facility for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (GFF for short) at the World Bank actually use grant funding to leverage IDA investments. Grant funding for data should do the same. Providing matching grants to governments or private sector contributions could help to crowd in funding.
  3. Assuring value add. Given finite resources, funding must be used as effectively as possible. Funding can supplement or enhance, but it shouldn’t duplicate or crowd out funding for important initiatives such as the International Household Survey Network, the Demographic and Health Surveys, and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys.
  4. Using incentives to drive innovation. The funds must be awarded in ways that incentivize lasting, country-owned changes. For this to happen, two things are key: (1) competition, both within and across countries, and (2) payment for results, so recipients are held accountable for producing good data in the process. These two factors should be considered in all possible ways, from activities that target National Statistical Offices and government entities to civil society and the private sector.
  5. Developing illustrative aspirational goals. Targets, which are not necessarily binding, such as “by 2030, 50% of IDA countries have district-level estimates of cause of death,” makes the goals of the data revolution funding more concrete. Such targets also help link the goals more closely to those of the SDGs and NSDS. Aspirational goals are also an essential motivator to attract external funding from donors.
  6. Emphasizing open data and its uses. A core aspect of the data revolution has been open and transparent data, given existing data is either inaccessible or unusable to the public. Publicly accessible data is crucial in holding the data collectors accountable; it is also a way to further encourage innovation. Some funding should be earmarked to fund national civil society organizations and universities to use the data to counter-verify headline statistics or conduct further analyses.

As the Spring World Bank-IMF meetings wind down, there are signs that African governments, the World Bank, the US Government and other leaders are considering a data fund and partnership deliverable at the next international meet-and-greet, the Financing for Development meeting in Addis Ababa in July. Consolidating all of the various ideas into a funding and partnership mechanism makes sense and can deliver on the data revolution.

In the meantime, the international community will continue push the data agenda forward at the Cartagena Data Festival (April 20-22), the Africa Regional Open Government Partnership Meeting (May 19-21) and the Measurement and Accountability for Results in Health Summit (June 9-11).

*Forgive the revolutionary-speak, but inevitable!


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.