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How Will the UN Manage a Data Revolution?

BY Christopher Wilson | Thursday, February 13 2014

What will be the role of multilaterals in the data revolution? (credit: UN)

The MDGs were the international development community’s answer to global poverty and inequality at the end of the 20th century. Setting a new course for human development, they included what now appear to be wildly ambitious global targets: halving the number of people living below $1.25 a day, and completely eliminating gender disparities in all levels of education, all before the year 2015.

Faced now with the inevitability of the their failure, development experts are again taking stock. In last year’s highly anticipated report, the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 development framework raised a number of eyebrows by calling for a data revolution to drive development. It’s not entirely clear what the data revolution is; the panel defines it broadly, referencing both statistics-driven policymaking and transparency driven trust between states and citizens.

For the international development community, this strikes a number of exciting chords: evidence-based policy, the limitless potential of technology, and the vague idea that somehow data can finally put an end to business as usual. For multilaterals like the UNDP, this provides a unique opportunity to address dramatically different types of development processes and initiatives within a single program stream. Who doesn’t want to be working on the side of the revolution (as they’re calling it) when everyone agrees that the current regime is broken?

Across the Great Divide

As the UNDP tries to carve out a mandate for itself in the data revolution, it becomes clear that the twin mandates of statistics-driven policy and transparency and accountability-driven trust speak to two distinct communities: statisticians and policy makers on the one hand, and on the other, the NGOs, think tanks and program managers obsessed with the burgeoning promise of “#open.” Each has their own conceptions of power, history and the role of information in development. And while multilaterals like the UNDP, the World Bank and the OECD have broad experience engaging with each, it’s not clear that they should be. There’s good reason to think that traditional engagement with governments and national statistical capacities is the better value for multilateral money, and to question whether there is any role at all for large bureaucracies promoting a data revolution for transparency and accountability in countries.

These tensions were notable at the recent “Data and Accountability for the Post-2015 Development Framework,” a dialogue hosted by UNDP and convening a motley collection of international experts. At the event, representatives of both the statistical community and the #open movement groups were present and were highly engaged, but there was very little sustained discussion between them. Statisticians argued for the importance of methodological rigor and supporting official data collection and policy procedures. This gained no traction with the think tanks and NGOs representing #open, who replied with impassioned non-sequiturs for accountability and transparency through new technologies. And then the statistical community replied in kind, with unrelated, but important assertions.

For three days the two groups spoke past each other, separated in the agenda by panels, and in conversation by an apparently vast rhetorical gulf across which even common terms failed to reach. For the statistical community, “accountability” implies policy and performance accountability between government bodies, not the citizen-state relationships emphasized by #open. “Data” means household surveys, trade statistics and the national census, not citizen reports, focus groups or open budgets. The idea of big data was most prominent in this regard. Statisticians asserted that they have long been using data sets of exceptional size, while #open implied vaguely and consistently that “big data” can tell us something important, about something, somehow. No one actually discussed how big data actually was, or could be used, or the fact that the statistical community has long been using big data (for example polling corporate purchasing data for consumption indicators became common as soon as it was clearly cheaper than counting goods on store shelves), they just haven’t called it that.

Can the UNDP help bridge the rhetorical gap between the statistical and NGO communities? (credit: Mark Orkin)

Bridging the Gap?

Facilitating a meaningful conversation between these two groups might to be the most obvious role for an organization like the UNDP to play. After all, as an institution, UNDP speaks the language of states and has an entire Bureau devoted to statistics, but also has a number of offices and projects dealing with the potential of ICTs for social and political change. This should give them the credibility and the vocabulary to bridge the most fundamental disagreements between these two communities. In the New York event, sustained exchange seemed only to occur around obvious disagreements, like the question of whether development monitoring data needs to be statistically representative. With some facilitation, this conversation might have bloomed and paved the way for compelling new methods and approaches to information and accountability. But in this event at least, there was a brief spark of disagreement, followed by dismissive sighs and head shaking, and yet more speaking across a chasm.

But even if UNDP proves unable to manage a meeting of minds between these communities, much could be done by engaging the statistical community alone. Multilaterals in close cooperation with national governments can add profound value by helping national policy makers and statistical offices to accommodate the novel types of data and communication enabled by contemporary technology, which is a tremendously important part of what might be considered the data revolution. This is something that UNDP is perfectly positioned to do. Promoting the use of citizen feedback and civil society monitoring as complementary data sources to conventional statistical work should be a key focus of UN governance programming. This takes advantage of the institutional knowledge and capacities that have been developed through years of navigating the political red lines of close cooperation with national governments. And it steers them clear of the temptation to manage innovation or to engage with the small and nimble groups that often do the most meaningful and innovative accountability work, groups for that might be tempted by the lure of multilateral legitimacy, but whose light touch can be deadlocked by lumbering bureaucracy.

Let the Revolution Bloom

At the end of the day, it’s perhaps most important that multilaterals like the UNDP recognize their limitations to support the most dynamic and profound aspects of the data revolution. Because the truly revolutionary aspect of data in development does not have to do with refining national policy processes or funding ICT4D projects. It has do with the structural changes taking place in information ecologies around the world. As social factors and market incentives align, information and communication become less expensive, more plentiful and more meaningful, and relationships of power and governance are consistently affected. This happens without grants or logframes (logical frameworks), and though it is facilitated by open economic and political environments, it is not something that a development organization can manage. Attempting to do so undermines the very dynamism that makes these trends so impactful, so revolutionary. The inclination to construct a logframe for the revolution, as suggested in closing by the organizers of last weeks dialogue, suggests that an institutional urge to manage innovative dynamism is alive and well. This should be resisted.

Because for organizations like the UNDP, this suggests an imperative to better leverage their strengths: capitalizing on close cooperation with governments and staggering resources to open up national policy processes to the data revolution, without stifling the local innovations and bottom-up dynamics that make it so vibrant and promising. And this means, while there is a fine line to tread between supporting champions of transparency and accountability, and chaining them to funding, reporting, logframes and meetings with ministers, it’s a line that UNDP would do well to define and to respect.

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