The US can build on data momentum from Addis when UNGA takes on the SDGs

The U.S. took a lead role on data at this month’s Financing for Development Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It can build on that leadership when the new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is taken up in September at the U.N. General Assembly.

The U.S. government team, led in the data arena by senior officials from the Department of State and USAID, is to be commended for strong advocacy of the importance of open and transparent data in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. They argued throughout the negotiating process for prominent acknowledgement of the role of open data and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The final commitment could have been stronger, but, given the nay-saying, it’s a success that data, transparency, and IATI are in the Addis Agenda.

The U.S. endorsed the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. This multistakeholder initiative is designed to bring data and transparency to the forefront of development. Among the commitments made by the U.S., PEPFAR pledged $3 million to the secretariat and by the end of this year to make publicly available data on procurement transactions and subnational targets and results. PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) recommitted to their joint work with several African countries to making data available and useable locally, including $4 million to seed an innovation grant competition. The MCC committed to develop recommendations on how to incorporate gender-disaggregated data in IATI.

The most insightful perspective on data at Addis was noted by two senior U.S. government officials, Daniella Ballou Aires and Tony Pipa, who wrote that data should no longer be viewed as just an enabler—it is capital. Investment in data and data systems is an investment in the sustainable social, economic, and political advancement of a country and the world.

Though the Addis summit is over, there is no rest. Two months from now the U.N. General Assembly is scheduled to endorse a new set of Sustainable Development Goals that will set the development agenda for the next 15 years. Two questions are how can the modest success on data at Addis be strengthened with the adoption of the SDGs and what does the U.S. take to the U.N. table.

One area in which the U.S. has a strong foot to put forward is data gathered through household surveys. USAID has a commendable record of support for Demographic and Household Surveys (DHS). Over the past 30 years it has sponsored some 320 national surveys in 90 countries through the program. Data from these surveys are reliable, comparable over time and across countries, and freely accessible to users.

While USAID is a leader in sponsoring population-based household surveys, it does not hold a monopoly. Other major players include UNICEF, which sponsors MICS (Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys), and the World Bank, which sponsors LSMS (Living Standards Measurement Study). These three survey instruments do not collect the exact same information, as DHS and MICS are focused mostly on health and LSMS collects a broader range of data.

Data collected through household surveys can provide critical information on social trends and well-being that can lead to better informed policies and program implementation. However important, the three large household survey programs are limited in scope. DHS, for example, mainly covers fertility, family planning, maternal and child health, gender, HIV/AIDS, malaria, nutrition, and environmental health. Though countries sometimes use DHS to collect data on other issues related to adult health (e.g., non-communicable diseases) and education through special question modules and biomarkers, these data are not routinely collected through any of the three platforms.

Collectively these three survey programs, along with a diverse set of topic-specific surveys (e.g., labor, income, agriculture) and national censuses, have been the main source of data for tracking and analyzing many of the indicators under the Millennium Development Goals. This data will play an even more central role with the new set of SDGs.

While survey data is some of the best and most valuable information available, there are issues, including:

  • a few low and middle-income countries have not participated in these large-scale household survey programs
  • for many developing countries the surveys occur irregularly or too infrequently (depending on the purpose and topic, the ideal varies from yearly to every five years)
  • there are inconsistencies among the various surveys so the data is not always comparable
  • some countries resist the data being publicly available
  • Other than DHS, MICS, and LSMS (the data and reports of which are posted on their respective websites), much country-level data is not easily found and accessible
  • Household surveys cannot provide other key pieces of information on, for example, service and commodity availability, quality of formal education, or the environment

To their credit, USAID, UNICEF, and the World Bank have worked collaboratively over the years to improve the comparability of their surveys and recently established a Collaborative Group to meet more regularly to harmonize their respective surveys and analytics.

DHS have their own limitations, in that they are oftentimes initiated only when a USAID mission and a government reach agreement to conduct a survey and only if sufficient funding can be mobilized to cover the cost of the survey. USAID typically covers half the cost, which can run more or less than 1 million dollars per survey, depending on the size of the country, sample size, and survey content. For some surveys USAID’s involvement is less in providing the funding and more in providing technical assistance on how a survey is formulated and conducted.

With data at the forefront of development, recognized for its central role in the Addis Accord and the critical role it will play in not just monitoring but achieving the SDGs, how can the U.S. use the momentum and focus of Addis and the U.N. General Assembly to further enhance the role of data?

The answer is revealed in the foregoing discussion. The U.S. can lead a global effort on survey data. Building on the existing USAID/UNICEF/World Bank collaboration, the U.S. could galvanize an initiative jointly with other public and private players, likely as a component of the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. Such an initiative might:

  • Further strengthen the tripartite collaboration to rationalize and harmonize DHS, MICS, and LSMS; expand it over time to include other household surveys;  establish similar collaborations for other types of data connection (e.g., national censuses, workplace-based data, and vital statistics)   
  • Invest strong advocacy and modest resources in making all data collection instruments and data publically available – in a common website or a series of linked websites
  • Increase donor funding for household surveys and other data collection, starting with USAID and using that enhanced commitment to entice other donors to contribute
  • Advocate for and provide funding to support increased data use (e.g. journalist and NGO trainings, in-country data analysis)
  • Advocate for countries to invest more of their own funds in collecting and using better data, to use a range of data collection approaches (e.g., censuses, surveys, civil registration), and to promptly make that data publicly available

The U.S. can lead through example, investment, and collaboration to bring data to the fore in tracking and driving the SDGs.