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!