The post is from the Guardian Poverty Matters Blog.
One buzz phrase the high-level panel's report on the post-2015 objectives has added to the development lexicon is "data revolution". Expect every report with numbers in it published over the next couple of years to be sold as part of this so-called revolution.
But as with all big new ideas, especially revolutions, the appropriate response is one of optimism balanced with a dose of caution. The history of development is littered with big ideas that have failed to live up to their billing.
Will better data really lead to better policies? On the one hand, it is so obvious as to be hardly worth stating that improved evidence and information should lead to better policymaking. Good data can help progressive leaders and civil servants make their case and implement better policies. And, ideally, you need facts to know whether your policies are working – it is no good just having good intentions.
On the other, there is a danger of getting overexcited by datasets and infographics. Where rapid poverty reduction has taken place in recent years, is better data behind it? Are we continuing to pollute our planet and make it more unequal because we lack data? Will more data about street children mean there are fewer of them? Will more data about communities being displaced from their land make it stop? Do we need to know precisely how many people are hungry, and how hungry they are, before making sure there is enough food for them?
Do we really need better data to make decisions that are pro-poor and pro-planet? Of course there are examples of better information and research leading to poverty reduction. But I remain worried that lack of data is being touted as an excuse for failure, with the added bonus of being a nice earner for the people in the research business calling for more of it.
A further concern is that you can come up with evidence for pretty much everything if you try hard enough. Working in research, I am constantly aware of the way that evidence can be manipulated to suit specific interests. The neoliberal age overseen by the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s and 90s, for example, was nothing if not data-heavy as quantitative models were rolled out by top PhDs to prove beyond doubt that certain policies were the right ones. Except they weren't.
The manipulation of data is so common in politics that it hardly needs to be emphasised here. Rather than following Keynes famous dictum that "when the facts change, I change my mind", when facts don't suit politicians' prejudices, they frequently prefer simply to commission another study. Rather than evidence-based policymaking, we so often have policy-based evidence-making.
As Benjamin Disraeli might have said, there three types of lie: lies, damned lies, and data.
Another great Englishman, Francis Bacon, coined the famous saying, "data is power", or something to that effect, and that is a clue to what a real data revolution could look like.
In the era of "big data", the likes of Google and Amazon (and the NSA) are ever more powerful as they collect information on customers and citizens. The fact that this data exists is not in itself a public good. In fact, many people worry that it may be a negative aspect of our modern world. What matters is who has the information, and how it is used.
Time to Listen, a book on the aid business, is the latest to highlight the practice of "experts" arriving in communities with their clipboards, taking detailed notes about people's lives, and then leaving, never to be heard from again. It is conceivable that the community will benefit from such an exercise – in the long-term and indirectly – but it is far from certain.
At a conference organised last month by Cepei, a Colombia-based thinktank, Danny Sriskandarajah, of Civicus, argued that the word revolution implied a people-led overturning of the current system. He called for citizens to lead a fresh wave of data collection. If the data revolution really sets out to turn things on their head, putting power over information in the hands of the poor, it will be one worth joining.
Who sets the questions? Who collects the data? And, crucially, in whose hands does it end up? If we get it wrong, we risk deepening inequality as more and better data bolsters the power of politicians and bureaucrats, while poor communities are left even further behind, with others holding information about them that they themselves lack access to.
The high-level panel's report acknowledges this, calling for information that is easily available and easy to use, but it should give it even more emphasis. The recently released A Million Voices report is stronger on the need for the data revolution to support an accountability revolution.
A non-revolution would be if a select group of nerds or politicians end up knowing more about poor people and their problems.
Just like all other development interventions, the question that matters most is this: are poor and marginalised communities more powerful than before? A real data revolution will answer that question in the affirmative.Related Articles
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