When it comes to development, more data is often better—but in the quest for more data, we can often forget about ensuring we have information, which is even more valuable. Information is data that have been recorded, classified, organized, analyzed, interpreted, and translated within a framework so that meaning emerges. At the end of the day, information is what guides action and change.
The need for more data
In 2015, world leaders came together to adopt a new global agenda to guide efforts over the next fifteen years, the Sustainable Development Goals. The High-level Political Forum (HLPF), to be held this year at the United Nations on July 10-19, is an opportunity for review of the 2030 Agenda, and will include an in-depth analysis of seven of the seventeen goals—including those focused on poverty, health, and gender equality. As part of the HLPF, member states are encouraged to undergo voluntary national reviews of progress across goals to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges, and lessons learned; to strengthen policies and institutions; and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the agenda.
A significant challenge that countries continue to face in this process, and one that becomes painfully evident during the HLPF, is the lack of data to establish baselines and track progress. Fortunately, new initiatives aligned with the 2030 Agenda are working to focus on data, such as the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. There are also initiatives focus on collecting more and better data in particular areas, like gender data (e.g., Data2X; UN Women’s Making Every Girl and Woman Count). This work is important and urgently needed.
Data to monitor global progress on the goals is critical to keeping countries accountable to their commitments and allows countries to examine how they are doing across multiple, ambitious goals. However, equally important is the rich, granular national and sub-national level data that can guide the development and implementation of evidence-based, effective programs and policies. These kinds of data are also often lacking or of poor quality, in which case more data and better data is essential. But a frequently-ignored piece of the puzzle at the national level is improved use of the data we already have.
Making the most of the data we have
To illustrate this point, consider the Together for Girls partnership, which was built on obtaining new data where it was lacking and effectively translating it into information to change policies and programs. We are a partnership between national governments, UN agencies and private sector organizations working to break cycles of violence, with special attention to sexual violence against girls.
The first pillar of our work is focused on understanding violence against children within a country, always at the request of the national government. We do this through a national household survey – the Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), led by national governments, CDC, and UNICEF as part of the Together for Girls Partnership.
This high-quality national household survey interviews thirteen to twenty-four-year-old boys and girls. It provides strong, reliable evidence that was not previously available. It helps answer key questions that are important to decision-makers, including: What is the magnitude of physical, sexual, and emotional violence against children? What are the connections between violence against children and violence against women? Where is the violence occurring? What are specific risk and protective factors?
As of May 2017, over twenty country partners across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean are in various stages of VACS implementation. To date, ten countries have completed VACS with full reports available and in use, and there is now VACS data for almost 10 percent of the world’s youth population—by the end of next year it will be 16 percent. Four of the countries participating in the voluntary review process of the HLPF this year have VACS data (Botswana is completing data analysis, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe have completed public reports) available both at the national and sub-national level. The results are sobering. For example, approximately one out of every four girls report that their first sexual intercourse was forced or coerced. We’ve also found that, albeit at lower levels, boys also experience unacceptably high level of sexual violence. Every country that has undergone a VACS has used the data to guide action to prevent and respond to violence against children, with special attention to gender issues. The data, and the process of requesting the survey and collecting the data, which includes multiple actors at national-level, has also served to spur high-level political commitment on issues that are often ignored yet interconnected: violence against children, gender inequality, and violence against women. This has led to incredible progress in both prevention and response.
These data sets are rich with information, and even more can be done to use them for decision-making. By further analyzing VACS data to look for trends and associations between violence and issues of relevance to multiple sectors (e.g. orphanhood, mental health, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, education—all of which are examined in the VACS), a fuller picture of the connections between important development issues emerges. This valuable information can help guide interventions and policies across sectors.
The truth is there is a plethora of data at the country level, generated by surveys, special studies, administrative systems, private sector, and citizens that can provide meaningful insights across all the development goals.
Connecting the dots
But data—like our programs’—often remain in silos. For example, data focused on violence against children is typically not top of mind for those working on women’s empowerment or adolescent health. Yet, as an example, the VACS can offer valuable information about how sexual violence against girls, as young as 13,is connected to adolescent pregnancy—or how one of the most common perpetrators of sexual violence against girls is a partner, a pattern that starts early and is a predictor for victimization and perpetration later in life. However, these data are not consistently used across actors working on programs related to adolescent pregnancy and violence against women.
As we gather in New York next month to assess progress on the SDGs, let’s not forget that, in addition to having more and better data, we also need to make better use of the data we already have, transforming it into useful information to guide action for the betterment of people and planet.