Why sustainable development needs better data

What we know, don't know, and need to know about the region's development challenges

Shamshad Akhtar

Development, Health, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific

18 February 2016

Official statistics aren’t telling the whole story of development challenges in the region, writes Shamshad Akhtar.

Sustainable development is in the spotlight in 2016, which marks the start of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an initiative that is both aspirational and transformative.

The first priority for all national governments in planning for the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and their 169 associated targets, is to address the strengths and weaknesses of data sources, to swiftly determine how best to address the gaps, as well as the complexities of measurement. Rapid development of the capacities of national statistical institutions will be critical because, 15 years from now, by the end of the 2030 Agenda, there will be nearly half a billion more people living in the Asia-Pacific region, all of whom should have reliable access to energy, food, water, education and employment.     

Data are the lifeblood of decision-making. Without them, designing, monitoring and evaluating policies for sustainable development is almost impossible. The breadth and depth of the new development agenda entails complex decisions about the future of our planet, our communities and our economies. Without appropriate data and information, there is a risk that our sustainable development strategies will be only partially complete, with their contours dictated by what is and is not available. This will not only slow down the process of implementing the SDGs, but also limit their transformational potential.

Generally, official statistics offer insights about Asia-Pacific development, but these are inadequate for the far-reaching and integrated dimensions of the sustainable development agenda. The World Bank’s Statistical Capacity Indicator for the Asia-Pacific region offers good foundations on which to build. On a scale from zero (representing no capacity) to 100 (full capacity), a rating of 79 is assigned for the timeliness of statistics, 70 for the adequacy of source data and 62 for methodologies used. There are, however, individual country scores as low as 20.

We know, for example, that 490 million people in Asia and the Pacific are undernourished. But we don’t always know where they are, why they remain hungry, or the impacts of sudden shocks or stress. Nor do we know how well existing policy interventions are working.

We also know that 277 million people in our region have no access to safe drinking water, a problem which affects one in every ten rural residents. What we don’t know is how long it takes people to get to water, or the actual volume of clean water available for use.

We know that approximately half a billion people in the countries of Asia and the Pacific do not have access to electricity, but we are uncertain precisely how many. Estimates vary from 427 million to 621 million, depending on the method used. It is also unclear how many more suffer from unreliable access, and whether some population groups have more reliable access than others.

We know that between 1970 and 2014, natural disasters resulted in $1.22 trillion of regional economic losses but, because there is no agreement as to what actually constitutes a natural disaster, how many have occurred and how many people were affected, these figures may be underestimated by as much as 50 per cent. This is compounded by the fact that impressive regional economic growth and social developments in recent years have not been accompanied by similar improvements in environmental protection.

Making data work for development calls for greater and sustained investment in statistics, statistical bodies, institution-building and partnerships. Estimates of the investment required globally to effectively monitor the 2030 Agenda over the next 15 years are approximately $1 billion per year, but the economic, environmental and social costs of failing to make this investment may be, literally, incalculable.

Fortunately, the leaders of Asia and the Pacific have long recognised the value and urgency of more robust data collection having resolved, in 2011, to strengthen statistical capacity across the region. This has led to a number of capacity building programs by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in critical areas such as civil registration and vital statistics, economic statistics and more recently, disaster-related statistics, working to ensure that the complex decisions we make today will result in the more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future we want.

It is also why the development of country and regional statistical ecosystems will be a core focus of ESCAP’s Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development in Bangkok this April. A regional roadmap will be crafted for implementing the 2030 Agenda, with proposals to support assessment of SDG statistical gaps, development of data and measurement, as well as strengthening of statistical institutions.

The author is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. She has been the UN’s Sherpa for the G20 and previously served as Governor of the Central Bank of Pakistan and Vice President of the MENA Region of the World Bank. The development trends and data challenges referred to in the article are discussed in more detail in the Statistical Yearbook 2015- Facts and Trends at the Outset of the 2030 Development Agenda

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