Tackling data scarcity in developing countries through public-private partnerships

By Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) called for a data revolution. Five years on, data scarcity became a major concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article explores if public-private partnerships can be an effective means of addressing data gaps in developing countries and helping them to build back better.  

No data, no information

Government agencies are the custodians of official data. They are in charge of reporting on national performance in SDG-related and other areas. However, in developing countries, lack of human resources, financial constraints and also lack of access to modern data generation tools often prevent agencies from producing the data countries need. In turn, without access to reliable data, policy makers struggle to take appropriate decisions and to assess and monitor progress of policy implementation.

It is often said that what is not measured cannot be monitored. During the pandemic, policymakers needed up-to-date and reliable data to capture the evolving effects, identify appropriate policies, distribute targeted support and assess what worked and what did not in a fast-changing scenario. Capturing the extent to which the pandemic has affected progress towards SDG targets is also problematic in the absence of quality data.

The role of non-state actors

Non-state actors, including think tanks, NGOs and the private sector, gather and produce significant amounts of information.  This trove of rich and useful data could serve as a powerful tool for policymakers to identify challenges, assess key variables, and quantify progress, for instance on SDG targets and indicators.

As the data and information generated by non-state actors often capture disaggregated dimensions – spatial, sectoral, sectional and others – these disaggregated data could prove to be extremely helpful to measure and monitor the SDGs.

The case of Bangladesh

The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a member of the Southern Voice network, collaborated with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics on a nationwide survey. The aim was to measure the impact of the pandemic and to analyse delivery of three targetted relief programmes by the Government of Bangladesh. These were (a) transfer of cash to 5 million households, (b) distribution of food and (c) distribution of rice and cash under a Gratuitous Relief  programme. The Bureau of Statistics ensured the sample was nationally representative and guaranteed that certain standards and procedures were followed. This ensured that policy makers had access to data they could rely on, even though it was not produced by government agencies. This type of collaboration should be harnessed and strengthened to improve availability of more reliable and disaggregated data to address the emerging data deficit.

Data generation partnerships for developing countries

As with the example from Bangladesh, strengthening the partnership between national statistical organisations and non-state data producers could result in a significant resource for policy makers. Governments can also provide state support to help build non-state actor capacities in data production. By building a two-way collaboration, non-state actors can become more proactively engaged in the work of national statistical organisations, identifying sectors, selecting variables and more. The work of national statistical organisations would in turn become more comprehensive and more credible, strengthening data integrity.

This type of partnership makes financial sense. It helps avoid duplication and ensures good value for money for the government. It can also help promote transparency and accountability in the process of achieving a data revolution needed for sustainable development and in monitoring SDG implementation.

Developing countries can benefit significantly from this model. Investing in these kinds of data generation partnerships will help them address data scarcity more effectively and be better prepared for crises to come.

There is a lot to learn from the innovations and failures that have come out of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The biggest lesson of all is that we live in an interconnected world; we need to work together to make it an equitable one. With particular attention to the voices of actors from the Global South, this series, in collaboration with Southern Voice, aims to identify solutions for an equitable recovery and to sustainably address power asymmetries among and within countries and regions.