How can data end global poverty? Looking through the lens of the post-2015 agenda

Photo By: Plan USA

By Judithe Registre, program director for Because I am a Girl Campaign at Plan International USA. Registre is speaking at Gender and the Data Revolution: What's Next? on Friday, June 13 at InterAction's Forum 2014. 

Now more than ever, data is driving how we make decisions. However, according to an IDC (International Data Corporation) study referenced in Forbes, as of 2012, “only 3% of the potentially useful data [available online] is tagged, and even less is analyzed.” We are still very far from where we would like to be in harnessing data to address global issues, particularly the gender bias in poverty and our commitment to helping those on the edge of the poverty line.

In recent years, ever more disciplines have increased their reliance on data to the point that data and decision-making now go hand-in-hand. In the field of poverty reduction, data have the potential to make grand transformations. The question now is: How can we use the abundant data available to help us reduce poverty throughout the world?

A USAID meta-evaluation found only 20% of the evaluations included sex-disaggregated data at all results levels where such data could, in principle, have been collected. Further, only 32% of evaluations over the four-year period included at least some mention of gender differential aspects of a project. An MSI (Management Systems International) post-rating review of how gender issues were handled in evaluation reports indicated that gender differential effects were based on limited data such as anecdotes, rather than on systematic data collection and analysis.

The high-level panel report on the post-2015 development agenda  included a call for a “data revolution.” If we heed the report’s suggestions and make gender-disaggregated data available, the potential implications for ending poverty and advancing girls’ rights would be enormous.

Where are we now on gender-disaggregated data?

Because many governments are currently unable to generate reliable age- and sex-disaggregated data, effective development program intervention is difficult to plan. We must also remember that it is not just the collection of data that is important; it is also the kind of data collected, which depends on the questions asked and an understanding of contexts. Data is meaningless without a sense of the underlying stories. For instance, there is some reliable data on the number of girls enrolled in schools, but we lack sufficient data on girls who are actually attending and completing school.

Usually, governments are given checklists to measure their commitments to reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty, but a checklist isn’t the same as accountability. We need demonstrated indicators in terms of improvements in people's quality of life. Since economic growth does not always translate into poverty reduction (especially for those living on the edge of poverty), we need economic growth that is people-centered.

Data show that economic growth alone does not necessarily lead to poverty reduction, even in the most advanced economies such as the United States. A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute found that “despite increasing economy-wide productivity, wages for the vast majority of American workers have either stagnated or declined since 1979”. For economic growth to impact poverty, people on the edge of poverty must also benefit. Considering poverty’s long-possessed gender bias, this commitment to economic growth will also play a critical role in breaking down the barriers facing adolescent girls.

Collecting data will help tremendously by leading to better and more targeted programming, policies and resource allocation. Opportunities presented by the post-2015 discussion are enormous, but transformative changes will require data.

What do we need next?

With the post-2015 framework, we are on a path to making significant impact. But progress requires resources and commitments. We need data that indicate progress in people’s lives This means data not only regarding the number of girls who complete school, but also on those who fell off-track and were brought back to complete their schooling.

With the post-2015 mandate, the opportunities have never been greater and the risks have never been higher. Data have helped corporations make better decisions about their customers in order to improve their services and profits, so why shouldn’t it serve a similar function in the quest for poverty eradication?

There is so much to look forward to with the Millennium Development Goals because the data are on our side. The 2012 World Economic Forum Report “Big Data, Big Impact,” offered some valuable insights on the opportunities provided by data for people in extreme poverty whose needs and behavior were previously misunderstood. We now have the chance to design transformative policies and interventions to benefit populations on the edge of the poverty line, including adolescent girls, to eventually achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

This article is part of a special blogging series for InterAction Forum 2014. The blogs, authored by Forum 2014 speakers, will be published June 9-13. Read more blogs in the series, and check out live updates from the ForumYou can follow Registre on Twitter at @JuditheRegistre and Plan at @PlanUSA. You can also join the conversation at #InterActionForum.