No more flying blind: Join the data revolution for sustainable development

Attention is quickly turning from the content of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to how these goals will be implemented. Data will be critical to track resources, monitor progress, and create accountability for results.

September 25, 2015
Samantha Custer

Courtesy image: Nina Frazier. Salon Magazine, 2/4/10.

On Monday, September 28, AidData will join with government, private sector, and civil society leaders to launch the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. The kickoff of this partnership is well-timed. Coinciding with this week’s summit in New York City, attention is quickly turning from the content of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to how these goals will be implemented. Data will be critical to track resources, monitor progress, and create accountability for results.

In this brave new world, what has really changed? Why is this "Global Partnership" needed? How is AidData focusing its own work to advance a data revolution for sustainable development? Read on to find out more.

Stepping back: what’s changed and what’s the same with the new global goals?

Similar to the Millennium Development Goals, SDGs outline a compelling vision of a desired future for our planet and the people within it. However, the 17 sustainable development goals take on a much broader set of issues with a larger price tag. The ambition of the new global goals is sufficiently “big, hairy, and audacious” to inspire a sense of urgency and will require a broader coalition of people, organizations, and countries to achieve.  

Financing for development in 2015 looks substantially different than it did in 2000. Countries have more sources of public, private, domestic, and international finance at their disposal than ever before. Official development assistance, while still critical to the lowest income countries, represents a decreasing proportion of funding for sustainable development. Companies, foundations, domestic tax revenues, and providers of South–South cooperation will play an ever-growing role. However, it remains to be seen whether and how these diverse funding sources will advance global goals.

While MDGs have sometimes been derided as being written by technocrats in advanced economies and imposed upon developing economies, the new global goals are universal and will be a stretch for all countries to achieve, regardless of income level. In fact, a recent Bertelsmann Stiftung study found that “many OECD countries–including the United States–still have a lot to do in order to achieve the sustainable development goals.”

Meanwhile, greater connectivity has made it easier to include more voices in the conversation about global goals. The inaugural My World survey mobilized an unprecedented 7 million people across the globe to vote on issues that were most important to them. National consultations held in 88 countries and public discussion forums online and offline indicate that citizens want to be involved not only in setting the goals, but also in monitoring progress.

Triggering a data revolution through a global partnership

Data is not new to SDGs, but gaps in reporting for MDGs has prompted renewed emphasis on strengthening national statistical capacity and making use of third-party data to help monitor goals. As a recent UN report notes, MDGs triggered an increase in data collection efforts to comply with monitoring requirements. Even so, a World Bank studyshowed that 77 out of 155 low- and middle-income countries had insufficient data to monitor poverty rates in the period between 2002 and 2011.

It is imperative that we improve the quantity and quality of data on resources, immediate-term results, and longer-term outcomes. Without the right information at their fingertips, decision-makers at the local, national, and international level are flying blind, relying on intuition rather than evidence to determine priorities, allocate resources, and make course corrections.

Citizens, companies, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and governments are producing a wealth of data that could inform monitoring and reporting on global goals. However, this data lives in different places with disparate formats that are not easily consumable by those who could put it to use. Legitimate concerns regarding individual privacy, market position, intellectual property, and lack of human resource bandwidth are often at cross-purposes with sharing data.

A successful data revolution will need to break down these silos and make it easier for people to turn data into information they can use to answer questions and make time-sensitive decisions. It will take a diverse set of stakeholders from government, civil society, academia, and the private sector to work together to liberate this data, make it easy to use, and put safeguards in place to alleviate concerns.

However, just because more data is available doesn’t mean that it will be put to use. Data isn’t produced in a vacuum and decisions are made in a political environment. For a data revolution to take off, we need better political acumen to pinpoint when, where, and how data and evidence can have the most influence in shaping decisions. Moreover, to avoid data graveyards, we need to be better at matchmaking: brokering collaborations between those who want to use data to answer specific questions and those who have the skills to produce, visualize, and analyze it.

The path to achieving global goals will be forged one conversation at a time. The value of the data revolution is to spark the next conversation. Yet, success depends not only on producing timely, high-quality data, but ensuring that this data speaks into real-world decisions about where to focus resources, monitor progress, and facilitate dialogue about priorities. As AidData joins the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data as an anchor partner, we look forward to working together with a growing coalition of leaders from governments, civil society, the private sector, and academia to do just that.

Charting a path to achieve global goals with data as our compass

The launch of SDGs has big implications for our work at AidData as we seek to help the international community obtain the data and evidence they need to answer the question: who is funding whatwhere, and to what effect?

Global goals likely shape the next 15 years of financing for development and the entire development landscape is shifting before us. We need to go beyond aid to capture all sources of financing for sustainable development. We must create better tools to listen and learn from in-country stakeholders about their priorities, perspectives, and felt needs in advancing global goals. We will continue to follow the money, but we will also connect upstream resources with downstream outcomes. In a world with universal goals, we must also grapple with whether to extend our efforts to looking at advanced economies.

I am pleased to announce that AidData is launching an integrated program of work that will build upon what we do best and explicitly focus our efforts to advance a data revolution for sustainable development. Specifically, we will collaborate with new and existing partners in order to: (a) track both aid and all-source financing for SDGs; (b) capture feedback from in-country decision-makers regarding their priorities, progress, and challenges in advancing SDGs; and (c) systematically analyze progress toward goals, connecting resources with results. This multi-year project will leverage several stand-alone activities and unite them around a shared objective: identifying gaps, trends, and patterns in financing for sustainable development at subnational, national, and international levels.

Be sure to check back with us next week when we launch the results of a small-scale pilot we’ve been working on this summer and fall to design a systematic approach to track how much money is going to support SDGs by country and development partner.

We’ll report on a fledgling effort to road test the methodology with aid flows via the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System (CRS) and a subset of development partners publishing to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Through this process, we will be able to create an initial baseline snapshot of the current status of aid toward SDG-like activities around the world and lay a firm foundation for our upcoming efforts to extend this approach to all resources.

Stay tuned for more!

Samantha Custer is Director of Policy Analysis at AidData.

Samantha Custer is AidData’s Director of Policy Analysis. To learn more about the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data, visit