(This blog post appeared, in slightly different from, on Post2015.org earlier this week. It is adapted from my remarks at the January 22 UN Foundation and World Bank hosted consultation on financing the data revolution. It’s not too late to comment on the background papers. )
2015 is a big year for global development. It is the year in which the current Millennium Development Goals come to an end, and the global community agrees on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. When the Post-2015 process kicked off, the UN Secretary General convened a High Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) to make recommendations for the goals. In their 2013 report, the HLP called for a “Data Revolution” to increase the coverage and quality of data—both official statistics and new data sources —to help both measure and achieve the new goals. Over the past year and half, there has been a flurry of activity to figure out what the Data Revolution should be.
Now, with less than six months until the Financing for Development (FFD) conference in Addis Ababa—a critical juncture in the Post-2105 process, we are finally starting to talk about how to finance the data revolution. As these conversations take shape, I see a collective to-do list emerging, both in creating a financing mechanism commensurate with the spirit of the Data Revolution, and in making FFD a success for the Data Revolution.
Financing for the Data Revolution – 4 Essential Ingredients
Recognizing that no single financing instrument will meet all the needs identified by the data revolution, I believe any instrument (existing, repurposed, or new), would need these four ingredients:
1. Credible and inclusive governance
The Data Revolution is meant to speak to a wide variety of players—national statistical offices, government leaders, private sector actors, data innovators, donors, civil society advocates, and so on. So while a given financing mechanism has to be housed in one place, it shouldn’t only reflect the priorities of that one place—a multi-donor trust fund housed at the World Bank, for example, would need guidance from and accountability to actors beyond the Bank. What lessons can we learn from other trust funds’ governance structures to help balance accountability to the home institution with accountability to the different actors it is meant to include and to serve?
The preliminary findings of the Post-2015 Data Test, as described in Part 1 of this post, add up to an important action agenda – one with both technical and political ramifications. On the technical side, it is clear that many countries have a long way to go to meet the data needs to measure against the Post-2015 agenda. The missing or weak data inspire an action agenda around a need for increased data coverage, quality, consistency, disaggregation, timeliness, and so on.
On the political side, the lessons across the seven country studies revealed a lot of tricky questions. How can we have common sustainable development goals (SDGs) that are both a rallying cry at the global level, yet meaningful at the country level? If you set and measure against country specific targets to make them more meaningful at home, where is the global accountability? Is there value in having a “global minimum standard” for some goals, if these minimums are long surpassed by the richest countries and out of reach for the poorest? Should we include goals in new and important areas, even if we don’t know how we’ll measure them? Why aren’t ministries of foreign affairs, who are leading negotiations, talking with national statistical offices who manage data? How do you build “demand” for solid data among policy makers and advocates? Who will pay to fill all the data gaps at the country and global level? This is a pretty complicated agenda, being hashed out in abstract through the UN process, and brought vividly to life by the data test country studies.
It’s tempting, as one (rather prominent) speaker at the Data Test event suggested, to keep these technical and political agendas separate. Keep the technical side to the statisticians. Limit their job to telling us which goals are measureable, and gathering data when we need it. Leave the political questions to the negotiators, the high-level representatives of the 193 UN member states. Put differently, and very dramatically, by one participant, “our data cannot be more revolutionary than our societal goals.”
However, the dichotomy of technical versus political misses an important point — these two parts of the agenda are deeply connected. The reason we have the data we have, and don’t have the data we don’t have, is all about politics. The politics of who decides what gets measured, who funds data collection in developing countries (hint: most often donors), what populations remain unmeasured and therefore officially invisible (hint: poor, minority, or remote communities). None of this is by accident. As Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh put it at the New York event, it is an “embedded social political relationship.” Rather than waiting for our societal goals to get more inclusive before we push our data to be, let’s use the gaps in data to inform how our societal goals need to shift!
To keep this dichotomy at bay, we need to proactively build bridges between the technical and the political sides. Who can do this well? We would argue that policy research centers – think tanks – in the global south are particularly well positioned to do this.
Think Tanks, like those involved in the Data Test and in the Southern Voice on Post-MDG International Development Goals network, naturally inhabit the in-between space between the technical and the political, bridging these worlds with research and policy engagement.
In fact, there are at least 5 bridges that southern think tanks can build to make the Post-2015 agenda more compelling at the global level and more meaningful at the country level.
Bridge #1 — Between using data to measure goals and achieve the goals. So far there has been much more focus on the data needed to measure the progress against the SDGs. But what about the data policy makers need to make decisions, target populations, set priorities and allocate budgets toward achieving the goals? Think tanks in many countries play a leading role in translating data into information policy makers can actually use to inform decisions.
Bridge #2 — Between what is currently measurable and what must be measured. In the broiling debates about how many goals we should have, it would be too easy to narrow the list of development goals by just taking off the ones that can’t currently be measured. But this would leave us without any of the new and controversial topics like governance, human rights and environment. Rather, negotiators should have the courage to keep in goals that truly matter for development, and commit to finding new ways to measure them. Well-timed research from the domain of think tanks could play an important role in filling this gap.
Bridge #3 — Among government entities in a given country. Almost all the Data Test scholars lamented the poor communication among ministries of foreign affairs, line ministries, and national statistical offices. This creates challenges for setting goals that are meaningful and measurable at the country level, and will wreak havoc on any efforts to actually implement the goals. Think tanks have the power to help here too, simply by convening. Having spent over six years in the U.S. government, one of us can vouch for how different agency officials scramble to get on the same page if they have to appear together on a panel. This may seem like a blunt instrument, but it works!
Bridge #4 — Between the national and global. The bridge between a mobilizing global Post-2015 agenda and targets that are tailored enough to be meaningful at the country level will be hard to build, particularly in the abstract. It will be critical to have people and organizations – beyond official government negotiators – shuttling between the national and global priorities. Southern Voice provides a great platform for country-level think tanks to bring country-level priorities to the global stage, and to bring global-level accountability to national discussions about the Post-2015 agenda.
Bridge #5 — Between civil society and governments. Who will hold national government accountable for negotiating positions that reflect citizens’ priorities, and for implementation against the globally-agreed goals? Civil society organizations will play a critical role here. Who will provide the data, research, and analysis, to make civil society’s advocacy stronger, and government decision-making more evidence-based? You guessed it – policy research centers.
So, for all the statisticians and political negotiators alike, keep Southern Voice and other think tanks on your radar screen. They can be a critical actor in getting to a set of goals that are both ambitious and achievable, both aspirational and (eventually) measurable, and both agenda-setting and implementable!
On October 14 in New York City, across the street from the hallowed halls of the United Nations, a group of scholars from Bangladesh, Canada, Peru, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Tanzania, and Turkey, came together to talk about data. Under the auspices of the Post-2015 Data Test, these scholars have spent the last year trying to answer one question — “How well prepared are these countries to measure progress on the Post-2015 development goals and targets?”
The Post-2015 Data Test - an initiative through which seven country teams are assessing the quality and availability of country-level data to measure progress on proposed post-2015 goals – held events in New York and Washington, D.C. to share the initial results from their work and to discuss implications for the Data Revolution and post-2015. Hosted by the UN Foundation in New York and the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C., the events brought together a wide range of stakeholders, including country team members, representatives from UN missions and agencies, civil society organizations, the private sector and the UN Secretary General’s Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution.
Here are four interesting (but not all-encompassing) takeaways from the New York event:
1. Countries have a long way to go to meet the technical data needs. While on average the data availability and quality are best (but still not great in most countries) in closely-watched areas like poverty, education, growth and employment, they are much worse in areas that weren’t in the Millennium Development Goals but are under negotiation for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – governance, human rights, environment. They are worse yet when trying to understand the experiences of specific segments of the population in a given country – like women, ethnic minorities, geographical locations – rather than national experience as a whole. This inspires an action agenda around increased data coverage, quality, consistency, disaggregation, timeliness, and so on. This is part of what people talk about when they say we need a “data revolution.”
2. A combination of global and local targets and indicators would be (very) complicated, but could work. The Post-2015 Data Test included a set of global targets for seven goal areas – poverty, education, employment and inclusive growth, energy and infrastructure, environment, governance, and global partnership – that all teams examined in their studies. Teams were also asked to select country-specific targets and indicators that resonated with country priorities. Once country teams selected their subset of metrics, they then investigated the availability of data for both the ‘global’ and ‘national’ level targets and indicators. Teams expressed enthusiasm for this global-local framing (and Special Advisor of the Secretary-General for Post-2015 Development Planning, Amina Mohammed cited this enthusiasm as “good news”), but the experience also revealed a lot of tricky questions about how we can have common goals that are both a rallying cry at the global level, yet meaningful at the country level.
3. A post-2015 architecture will need to take into account political incentives. In order for the post-2015 architecture to work, countries need resources to help achieve the goals they commit to, technical support to meet data requirements to measure progress, and a creative political design that creates incentives for accountability. Countries have to make bold post-2015 commitments at home and on the global stage, some of which they don’t currently have the resources or capacity to meet. Debapriya Bhattacharya, one of the leads on the Data Test, described the three reasons why countries might take this risk. The first is the hope of predicable, additional funds to help them solve country-level challenges. The second is the potential for partnership to solve problems that no one country can solve alone, such as climate change. And the third is the chance to push for agreement by other countries to address issues over which developing countries have little control, such as limiting international financial shocks. Will these existing incentives be sufficient to keep countries “on-the-hook” for post-2015 commitments? Or will new incentives need to be built in to the post-2015 architecture?
4. Intra-governmental dynamics will significantly impact goal-setting and implementation. Observers of the Post-2015 process focus a lot on dynamics between country governments. But what about what happens withinthem? When discussing both the negotiation and implementation stages of the Post-2015 agenda, national representatives spoke about lack of coordination within governments to be a major challenge. For example, ministries of foreign affairs, who are leading negotiations, rarely talk with line ministries who have substantive leadership in many areas covered by the goals, or with national statistical offices who manage data necessary to measure them. Lack of communication between ministries and mismatched priorities between federal and local governments was cited as one of the barriers to designing a post-2015 architecture, and to implement the SDGs.
So, how can the global community address these issues in the next year as the Post-2015 agenda takes shape? In Part 2 of this blog, we outline the role that Southern think tanks can play in this.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) won the race to the top in 2014. But if the past few years are any indication, it won’t hold onto the top spot for long. Last year the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation took top honors, and in 2012 it was the UK Department for International Development. The fact that the race is on—for increased transparency in foreign assistance—is a huge tribute to Publish What You Fund’s Aid Transparency Index (ATI). The Index, in its fourth year of publication, ranks an ever-growing number of global donors (currently 68) on how transparent their spending is.
Last week’s launch of the 2014 ATI at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC offered four very different leaders in transparency a chance to talk about how ATI is inspiring agencies to action, and why that matters—one each from a multilateral donor, a bilateral donor, a civil society network, and a ministry of finance.
Ranking tenth in 2012, and forth in 2013, UNDP crept their way up to #1 on the Index in 2014. They took the long-view, built the necessary systems, and in the words of Haoliang Xu, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, they made a deliberate decision to change their culture and mindset toward openness—not just at headquarters, but across their 140 country offices.
If UNDP ran a marathon to the top spot, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) ran a sprint. PEPFAR ranks only 30th on the 2014 Index, so why the hype? Well, just last year they were number 50. PEPFAR is a clear case of what you can achieve if you have a real champion for open data in the drivers’ seat. Ambassador Deborah Birx, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and head of PEPFAR, is just that. With three decades working in HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health, she came into office with a clear-eyed and heartfelt interest in data. She started at PEPFAR in April 2014, just three months before the cut-off for data collection for the 2014 ATI. After the launch event, a representative of Publish What you Fund mentioned that Birx has asked them what she could do to improve on the Index. No one believed she could move the needle in 2014 because she had so little time. But in the course of just a few weeks, she took the program up 20 spots. Proof positive that political will is more important than the technical or administrative complications of opening the books.
As interesting as the horserace is, it is not nearly as interesting as why UNDP and PEPFAR made these moves. Why do these agencies want to be in the race at all?
Fair warning: I am asking you to pay attention to something that some people argue is of dwindling relevance. Development assistance—the taxpayer dollars that the U.S. government spends globally to reduce poverty, foster economic growth, and help improve the human condition—makes up a smaller slice of the development finance pie than it once did. Private financial flows now dwarf donor-provided funds, and the strong economic growth in many developing countries means their domestic resources play an increasingly important role, too.
Does this mean we should turn our backs on aid? On the contrary. Aid can play a pivotal role in creating the environment—in terms of reliable infrastructure, skilled workforce, legal frameworks, and good governance that attract all this new private investment. And despite being relatively smaller in terms of dollars, improving how we spend aid can have an outsized impact—to ensure that fewer dollars go farther, that the assistance we do offer is worthy of U.S. leadership on the global stage, and that it helps set a standard for global engagement by all actors, old and new.
How we design, allocate and implement development assistance is precisely the question that the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) is tackling. MFAN (which the Hewlett Foundation has supported since 2008) is a coalition of research, grassroots, implementing, and advocacy organizations pushing for more effective U.S. development assistance, originally formed in the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections to get development issues on the political radar screen. It re-emerged last week in version 2.0. Its new reform agenda focuses on two fundamental principles to make U.S. foreign assistance more effective: accountability, through increased transparency, evaluation, and learning; and country ownership of the priorities, resources, and implementation of development investments.
Why getting the “how” of development assistance right still matters.If the world’s biggest bilateral donor puts partner country priorities at the top of the agenda, invites their citizens to the table, and opens its books about how much it spends and what it does (or doesn’t) achieve, this sets a standard by which other actors, including partner countries themselves and private investors, are held to account. It allows the U.S. to lead by example and by conviction on the global stage. It helps raise the bar on the kinds of engagement and accountability citizens come to expect and demand of their own governments and of global partners.
Why now. The principles of accountability and country ownership are not new. Why has MFAN chosen now to bring these fundamental principles back into the spotlight? The last five years have brought an increasing supply of rigorous evaluations that test long-held assumptions about traditional development interventions, a major push on open data and aid transparency, and an increasingly frank discussion about the causes of and lessons from failure. In this context, “accountability” takes on a whole new meaning, with vastly more information and data in the hands of citizens, advocates, and governments. Likewise, the notion of “country ownership” gets much more sophisticated when technology enables citizen participation and feedback in ways unthinkable just five years ago. Finally, the concepts of accountability and ownership have been mainly applied to development assistance in stable, democratic countries; but they are largely absent in fragile environments. With poverty (and U.S. assistance) increasingly concentrated in these fragile environments, it is even more critical that we push ourselves to apply these pillars of effectiveness in those places.
There’s a window of opportunity to consider, as well—both at home and globally. The Obama administration, which has in fits and spurts embodied these principles, has less than three years to solidify the gains it has made so far—to embed these basic principles into the DNA of how the U.S. engages on development. Meanwhile, the U.S. government will be at the negotiating table next year to establish the next set of global development goals, the so-called post-2015 goals. What these goals are, and how they are set, should absolutely align with the principles of ownership and accountability, and the U.S. is an important player in making sure they do.
What to watch for.My eyes will be on three things as MFAN pushes this policy platform over the next few years.
First, what do the U.S. Administration and Congress do? MFAN’s policy paper calls for specific and high-profile actions, like U.S. compliance with the International Aid Transparency Initiative, and reducing the number of Congressional earmarks and Presidential directives that make U.S. assistance more about what Americans want than what poor countries need. But we should be watching behind the scenes too, to monitor how the Administration’s initiatives (things like Power Africa and USAID’s Development Lab) embody the principles of accountability and ownership, and the degree to which agencies live up to their own policies for local solutions, evaluation, or transparency. For real impact, these principles need to be embedded in how agencies do all their business.
Second, what does the U.S. development community do? The government is not the only one that bears responsibility to make aid more effective. The broader community, including organizations that contract with the U.S. government to implement development programs, have to walk the talk too. If they advocate for more country ownership, they must also make room for partner country priorities, citizens, and businesses in their own work. If they advocate for greater evaluation and transparency by the U.S. government, they must bring these practices in-house as well.
Finally, what does MFAN do? Ambitious goals like shaping how the U.S. government engages with country partners and on the global stage require a sophisticated campaign founded on solid research and analysis—one that taps into the sensibilities of grassroots coalitions, and leverages the skills of seasoned policy advocates. No one organization holds all this capacity. But across its diverse membership, the MFAN network does. There’s real potential for this network of organizations to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
I joined the Hewlett Foundation earlier this year after more than a decade in Washington, DC. My time in Washington was dedicated to many things, but a common thread throughout them was gathering lessons learned (on behalf of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Center for Global Development)about design, implementation, and evaluation of U.S. development assistance programs. I learned a lot. But, two months in at the Foundation, it’s all about what I am un-learning. For example:
The amount of money you spend is not necessarily related to the influence you have. In Washington I got used to thinking about bilateral grants in the hundreds of millions of dollars, supporting direct investments for economic growth and poverty reduction. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to making grants in the millions (or less) here at the Hewlett Foundation. One month in, I am getting a sense of the big impact that smaller dollars can have. The secret is not just thinking about the scale of direct investments, but also what resources can leverage and signal.
Leverage can mean using grant resources to connect the dots along a chain. For example, supporting groups that generate data about whether kids are learning in school; funding community-based groups that use the data to advocate for better services; and supporting organizations that help build government capacity to use the data for policy-making. Leverage can also mean using anchor funding to attract other funders to a new idea, much more nimbly than bilateral and multilateral donors can.
Signaling matters too—when the size of the check is less important than the strength of the principles. The Foundation’s independence allows it to stick by deeply-held principles over decades, such as standing firm on a woman’s right to an abortion, or to combating climate change, no matter where the political winds blow. Or backing efforts to increase transparency—of government spending, aid dollars, or service delivery—long before transparency was the sexiest thing in development.
On Monday, the 2014 African Transformation Report “Growth with Depth” hit the streets of Johannesburg and the world. Just another economic report for the shelves, you ask? Not this time. Here’s the “who, what, and why” that should make you stand up and take notice.
The Who: If we told you this is an ambitious, continent-wide, agenda-setting, deeply-researched, data-heavy, policy-relevant economic report, who would you guess produced it? The World Bank? The African Development Bank? Guess again. The report is the brainchild of the Ghanaian African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), working in collaboration with home-grown think tanks across the continent. ACET bills itself as a “think-and-do tank, bringing an authentic African perspective,” with staff hailing from eight African countries. African scholars setting a robust agenda for African development. For global development policy makers and advocates looking for the next frontier of country ownership, this is it – at a continental level!
The What: The 2014 African Transformation Report defines a framework for economic transformation in Africa – growth with DEPTH. It is an actionable policy agenda to make the most of Africa’s growing workforce, abundant land, and natural resources. According to the report, growth with DEPTH means:
Making Exports competitive;
Increasing Productivity of farms, firms, and government functions; and
Upgrading Technology used throughout the economy.
All to improve Human well-being.
The report also presents the African Transformation Index: a ranking designed to create some healthy competition among countries, and frankly, to test our assumptions about which countries have the right mix of policies to promote growth with DEPTH. The big surprises are Ghana and Nigeria in the bottom third of the Index and Botswana nowhere near the top. Read the report to find out why!
The Why: “Transformation” is the talk of the town in capitals around the globe. The UN High Level Panel on post-2015 development goals focuses on it; the African Union Vision 2063 calls for it; and it’s at the heart of the African Development Bank’s new strategy. ACET puts forth a data-driven, actionable agenda for what “transformation” can and should look like. The data-driven approach also helps shine a light on what we do and don’t know. Some countries are left out of the Index altogether. The report actually opens with an eloquent forward by Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Yet her country is not included in the Index. Why? Insufficient data. We simply don’t know enough about Liberia’s economy to know whether it is transforming and how.
What’s Next: ACET has done a terrific job of laying out the puzzle pieces of economic transformation in Africa—including what pieces are still missing. Their next step is to use the report as a call to action for African governments, international donors, the private sector, and civil society. When they make that call, it’s time for everyone who cares about the future of the continent to stand up, take notice, and take action.