Statisticians enter data into computers for processing and analysis in Turkmenistan. Many developing countries have problems compiling even basic social and economic statistics that would be needed to monitor the sustainable development goals. Photo by: World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

When Moses went to Mount Sinai more than 3,000 years ago, he came back with 10 commandments. When the world’s presidents and prime ministers go to New York City in late summer, they will go back not with 10 commandments but 169.

Too many? Some people certainly think so.

“Stupid development goals,” the Economist said recently. It argued that the 17 sustainable development goals and roughly 169 targets should “honor Moses and be pruned to 10 goals.” Others disagree. In a report for the Overseas Development Institute, May Miller-Dawkins warned of the dangers of letting practicality “blunt ambition” and backed SDGs with “high ambition.”

The debate over the “right” number of goals and targets is interesting, important even. But it misses a key point: No matter how many goals and targets are finally agreed, if we can’t measure their real impact on people’s lives, on our societies and on the environment, then they risk becoming irrelevant.

Unfortunately, we already know that many developing countries have problems compiling even basic social and economic statistics, never mind the complex web of data that will be needed to monitor the SDGs. A few examples: In 2013, about 35 percent of all live births were not officially registered worldwide, going up to two-thirds in developing countries. In Africa, just seven countries have data on their total number of landholders and women landholders, and none have data from before 2004. Last but not least, we are not sure if we have a billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide, half a million or more than a billion due to fast-changing economies and associated measurement challenges.

Why does this matter? Without adequate data, we cannot identify the problems that planning and policymaking need to address. We also cannot judge if governments and others are meeting their commitments. As a report from the Center for Global Development noted, “Data ... serve as a ‘currency’ for accountability among and within governments, citizens and civil society at large, and they can be used to hold development agencies accountable.”

So data matters. Despite this, blank spaces persist in the statistics of many developing countries. And they persist even at a time when the world is experiencing a “data revolution” — a rising deluge of data matched by ever-increasing demand for data.

Despite the challenges, we are optimistic all countries, including the poorer ones, can make quick, dramatic progress.

Firstly, there is not only a growing awareness of the statistical challenges they are facing but also a growing willingness to do something about it. Some statistical offices in more than 30 developing countries have signed up to our Data Declaration, in which they state that “the time is now to bring the data revolution to everyone, everywhere.”

Second, new technologies are already helping to revolutionize the world of data. The Innovations Inventory of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century, or PARIS21, has compiled hundreds of ways in which technology is making it easier and less costly to collect data and providing new sources of data, like “big data.” Examples abound, including initiatives from nongovernmental organizations and private sector.

In the frame of its Data for Development challenge, Orange Senegal opened up its mobile phone call log data for researchers to generate insights into health, transportation, demographics, income inequality and more. Another truly “Big Idea” comes from Restless Development, a youth-led development agency that equips young people with knowledge, skills and platforms necessary to effectively interpret data in order to mobilize citizens to take action.

Third, we are optimistic because we want to build on what is already there — existing national statistical systems.

Clearly, many are far from ready to join the data revolution. One of our colleagues recalls visiting one national statistical office that couldn’t pay its power bill and had to negotiate with a neighbor to string an extension cord from his home to the office. That may be an extreme example, but other challenges — including technology gaps, shortages of trained staff, weak data dissemination and poor relations with users — are all too common.

Nevertheless, national statistical agencies are the only entities with the expertise and legal frameworks to play the lead role in collecting, processing and disseminating data. It is on them that the data revolution for development for sustainable development must be built.

Of course, our Road Map for a Country-led Data Revolution is only a start. Much else needs to happen. This includes designing pilot projects, finding better ways to integrate new sources of data in existing national systems and — unsurprisingly — finding extra funding.

But here again we are optimistic. We don’t accept that the cost of monitoring the SDGs will be “crippling.” With our colleagues in the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, we have calculated that additional donor funding of $200 million a year, matched by a similar rise in domestic funding, would enable the 77 countries under the World Bank’s International Development Association to successfully monitor their progress on the SDGs — yes, even the proposed 17 goals and 169 targets.

We don’t yet know if that will turn out to be the final number of SDG “commandments.” But here’s something we do know: Developed and developing countries are on the cusp of a huge and dramatic change in how they collect and disseminate data. With the aid of a clear road map, strong political will and “miraculous” technologies, we really are much closer to the promised land of better data than we realize.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Johannes Jütting

    Johannes Jütting is the manager of the PARIS21 Secretariat within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He leads the partnership’s work in supporting developing countries to strengthen capacity to better produce and use statistical data for policymaking and monitoring of development outcomes. He also contributes to the reflections on the design and implementation of the OECD development strategy as well as the post-2015 development framework.