At #FFD3 factivists can and must disrupt development's 'data crisis'

Researchers evaluate data collected from a maize field in Nigeria. A new partnership for open data will be announced this week in Addis Ababa, where development stakeholders are gathered for the third International Conference on Financing for Development. Photo by: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture / CC BY-NC

There are two big but bloody obvious issues at stake as the nations of the world meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the third International Conference on Financing for Development this week: finding the money then monitoring that money.

The first issue, of course, focuses on the shape and structure of the trillions of dollars in financing from all partners — south and north, public and private — that will be delivered over the course of the 15-year life span of the new global goals for sustainable development, but without good data, the dollars don’t go so far or always where they are intended. That’s where the Addis accord must chart a new path.

If the accord properly combines the money with the data-based monitoring, it could herald a positively disruptive breakthrough that upends the sometime complacent way too much development policy is currently conducted. This would accelerate dramatic improvements in the lives of the poorest people on the planet and, in time, everyone else too.

Addis #FFD3 is trying hard not to bill itself as a pledging conference, but even if you accept that, it still must set the structure for how at least $2 trillion in existing aid alone will be spent over the next 15 years. Multiplied many times by domestic public finance to fight poverty, and then leverage in private investment on top of that, and we are talking serious money for sustainable development.  The sums at stake dwarf those being discussed when it comes to the vexed issues of Greece’s exit (or not) from the eurozone.

So a most basic, obvious aim of Addis is to ensure that enough of these huge sums are spent in the most effective way to help the poorest countries end extreme poverty and beat climate change by 2030 — a core aim of the new global goals.

There is a simple, powerful and persuasive proposal on the table to do just that: a basic-needs social compact extending to every citizen on the planet, to ensure that any citizen living under or close to the $1.25 threshold is reached and empowered with a package of basic social services. This would be financed through a reallocation of existing aid toward the poorest countries (currently only a third goes to the poorest countries — those with least access to nonaid forms of finance — and that must rise to a half), but the least-developed countries must also increase their own domestic anti-poverty allocations, by boosting tax takes and revenues raised domestically.

This would set nations on a path to finance their own development. They will need targeted, smart aid to build that capacity, plus improved transparency and global cooperation on tax. But above all, the delivery of this compact must be underpinned with far better data about and for the poorest it is intended to reach. The funds will fail them without it, which, frankly, happens more often than most in development want to admit.

In fact, to all development policy practitioners a plea: Let’s admit that we have a data crisis.

A few months ago, I visited a village in rural Tanzania where some services were being partially provided — especially in health — but many others were shoddily delivered (if at all). This was because the village’s executive officer didn’t know how many people lived in his village, nor their gender and ethnic breakdown, nor the budgets for health, agriculture and education. All of this data was, in fact, on a poster that I spotted behind his desk — but this poster had peeled off the wall in a most depressing fashion. When we investigated further, we found that the data was all out of date.

I’ve visited these local offices many times in the past, but too often as part of some VIP’s entourage. On these occasions, the posters are pristine and brimming with up-to-date data, but on this occasion, I went alone and saw a different truth.

This local incompetence crushes central governments’ best-laid plans and slows the fight against extreme poverty. Only 10 percent of Africans live in countries where citizens can scrutinize national budgets and expenditures, according to the Open Budget Index.

The inert data on that peeling poster was dead — and killing both progress and actual people. Better data would help central governments identify and remedy such a lack of local capacity, sheer incompetence or — worse — corruption, and help local citizens hold their public officials accountable.

Furthermore, the facts about far too many development projects are siloed into separate boutique data subsets that chase funders’ fashionable pet projects and shafts of academic light that cover specific sectoral subissues, but which are set amid national statistical systems starved of cash and lacking political prioritization.

It’s hard to target funds efficiently when the people whom they are intended to help aren’t even accounted for. A quarter of countries where the poorest people live are using data on extreme poverty that is at least a decade old.

It’s also hard to target funds efficiently when you don’t even know where the poorest live, whether they are alive, or how they died. One-third of births aren’t registered, two-thirds of deaths and their causes aren’t registered, and, broadly, the quality and quantity of available data declines the closer we get to the poorest people whom global development policy is most supposed to serve.

The ultimate aim of the Addis accord must be to turn this on its head and enable governments, citizens and the media to follow financial information flows in the public interest through interoperable data sets through the entire system — from aid, tax and extractives revenue payments into the government budgets of developing countries, onward into local budgets, and down to the grassroots delivery of vital services. The system must then provide feedback on whether the money and services provided are achieving the results intended.

This is why a new partnership for open data will be announced in Addis, marshalling innovations and investments to support better open statistics and calling for the recruitment of a worldwide movement of evidence-based activists — “factivists” — connected tech-savvy citizens armed with mobile phones. They can help fill data gaps where necessary and follow these money flows — south, north and through the whole system — holding global and national promises accountable for delivering local results where the most left behind and currently uncounted actually live.

The global partnership for development has made massive progress since 2000, but this new partnership for better data is now mission-critical if we are to help citizens determine their own destiny and drive extreme poverty down to zero.

Devex is in Addis to give you the inside track on #Fin4Dev. Follow @Devex, @richard_devex and @AlterIgoe to get the latest news and developments from #FFD3.

About the author

  • Jamie Drummond

    Jamie Drummond is an advocacy entrepreneur who co-founded ONE with Bono and other activists. ONE is a global organization with over 9 million members campaigning against extreme poverty, for the transformation of developing economies, and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Jamie was the global strategist for Drop the Debt, helping to cancel $110 billion of mainly African debt. He is now working with a range of public, private, and civic sector partners to design a campaign strategy for an SDG super year of activism in 2020 to launch a decade of delivery for the Global Goals through to 2030.