Data, centralized: The UN as standard-bearer for a new era of data

Has there ever been a time when institutions were trusted so little? Certainly not in my lifetime. People have never been naïve, but confidence in governments and the media, and even now in businesses and NGOs (which have traditionally been most trusted) has been on the decline. Deliberate misrepresentation (a.k.a. propaganda) combined with a confusing avalanche of information on social media is making it ever harder for people to make decisions based on evidence.  


We may not be living in a “post-truth” world, but getting our hands on something resembling a fact is certainly a challenge. 


Is there any entity that could come to the rescue? Is there perhaps a global organization that might be expected to engage and promote trustworthy evidence and data, with no agenda other than the good of humanity and the planet? 


(You can see where I’m heading with this.)


In this febrile global context, the UN–not for the first time–is reconsidering its relevance, the theme of this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA). How can the UN enhance its global leadership? How can it encourage better coordination of responsibilities? How can it, ultimately, ensure peace, equity, and sustainability?


One thing it could consider, I suggest, is its role in responding to this rupture of popular confidence in official data and statistics.


Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the focus on evidence and data has been frenzied. A step change in data collection and analysis was clearly required given the expansion in scope and ambition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era. The success of the landmark report “A World That Counts” has spurred not only UN entities, but also a wide range of organizations to work harder than ever on improving data collection, analysis, and communication. The creation of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) is a concrete symbol of this energy and resolve.


So, data is now more important than ever to the mission of the UN. But if you ask people what the UN does, what it’s for, you are unlikely to receive replies that mention data, evidence, and statistics.


“It’s for peace and security.”

“It’s for sustainable development.”

“It’s for human rights.”


All true, of course. But nothing on its role promoting solid and meaningful data?

Of course, this could be because it is not set out in the UN’s mandate and purpose.

Nowhere, as far as I am aware, is it formally acknowledged that the UN should play a global role with regard to quality of evidence and statistics.


As I Googled away researching this article, I couldn’t find any documents that put data and evidence squarely in the centre of the UN’s mission. The one exception is a document from 2003 (!), a report from a meeting of the ominous sounding Committee of Information, that allowed, “More than ever, the world was looking to the United Nations as a unique source of impartial reliable information.” Needless to say, it seems to have been consigned to one of the myriad files that fill that tall building in New York.


But it was spot on then and is even more so today. However, perhaps the UN is more a curator than a source, relying on partners the world over to provide top-quality information that the UN then approves, uses, and communicates. Not so much a standard-setter (which might require too much unwanted bureaucracy), but some kind of standard-bearer, exemplifying and encouraging good practice. It could be a role model for the proper use of data. And the message could be explicit–that data used by the UN has received its stamp of approval and should be considered trustworthy.


Not only is data required to map progress against the SDG indicators, it is also necessary to decide where to allocate limited finance and resources, to make difficult policy decisions. This is true as much for UN organizations as for all the others engaged in achieving the SDGs.


Now could be a propitious time to make data, evidence, and statistics an explicit focus of the UN, perhaps with mandated global responsibilities. With an ambitious reform of the UN system now underway, it is imperative that the much-vaunted data revolution is at the heart of the UN that comes out the other side. 


To some extent, the UN already plays this role and it has demonstrated that it has impressive strengths to build on including its experience in quality assurance of national data, and its capacity to broker change and build partnerships and networks.  


Most crucial, it is perceived as relatively impartial. Organizations are mistrusted if they are thought to have an agenda or to be serving a vested interest. The UN, on the other hand, is seen to represent a multiplicity of needs and views (although this perception is somewhat dependent on the UN’s history in a particular country or region).


The UN’s brand as a trustworthy source of reliable data could be built on further, through the delivery and curation of good quality and relevant statistics, evidence, and data. On poverty, inequality, climate change, natural resources, migration, deaths, and injuries in conflict–in short, all the issues that the UN is today working so hard on.


None of this would imply a major shift of resources; the building blocks are already very much in place. But it would mean a clearer mindset and vision. And if the UN took on a data role more boldly and unambiguously, it could face a range of challenges. How would its work reach everyone, leaving no one behind, rather than just communicate with the already connected? How would it manage the fact that data simply doesn’t persuade as much as stories and anecdotes do?


Many of us started in the world of international development driven by philosophical ideals, a powerful belief in peace, justice, conservation of nature’s beauty and bounty. Data and statistics, if we thought of them at all, were afterthoughts, corralled to support our instincts and campaign calls. Today, things are different. Good-quality data is a crucial public good, important in its own right. The UN knows this instinctively, and now it needs to say so explicitly.  


As this UNGA re-explores the UN’s modern relevance, it must seize this opportunity to help reconstruct a politics based on data and evidence–it is one of the few institutions left that has the credibility to play this role.


In a world in which there is declining trust in entities that previously carried the hallmark of honorability, good data could be the UN’s contribution to halting the post-truth avalanche.

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