Uncounted: has the post-2015 data revolution failed already?

12th May 2015

Counting matters. As the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report puts it: 

What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted…. [I]f metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be inferences we draw.

The UN Secretary General was told two years ago by the 2012–13 High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda that any follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had to include a data revolution.

In common with the UN global thematic consultation on inequality earlier in 2013, the High Level Panel recognised that challenging inequalities and better data collection are inextricably linked – because better data make it clear which goals are and are not being met, and because with better data we can all demand answers and action. 

"If there’s no recognition of the political nature of how we count, then we’d be fooling ourselves to expect any great change."

So the data revolution can only be about changing the balance of power. Yet much of the current discussion emphasises purely technical reforms instead.

I use the term ‘Uncounted’ to describe a politically motivated failure to count that reflects power. It ignores people and groups at the bottom of distributions whose ‘uncounting’ adds another level to their marginalisation. It ignores people at the top whose uncounting hands them even greater power.

Why do we fail to count well at the bottom? This figure shows three different series for primary school enrolment in Kenya. One comes from the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS); one from the Demographic and Household Surveys (DHS); and one from the Ministry of Education (MOE). MOE data come directly from schools and are used as the basis for funding decisions. 

Now, MOE trends tell you that progress is rapid and unsustained, while surveys look static. Which do you believe? If your children are in Kenyan state education, how well counted do you feel?

Not that survey data are perfect either. Six groups are systematically excluded from most household survey and census returns. Excluded by design are the homeless, those in institutions and nomadic populations. Ignored by undersampling are those living in fragile, disjointed households, in areas facing security risks and in informal settlements. These groups, thought to amount to around 250 million uncounted people – roughly 3.5% of today’s global population – obviously contain a disproportionate share of the world’s poorest people. They are being systematically failed even in the ‘best’ counting approaches we have.

"The world’s poorest people … are being systematically failed even in the ‘best’ counting approaches we have."

It’s no coincidence that people in poverty are excluded. Nor is it because of technical problems that Sudan’s government in Khartoum suppresses publication of data on regional development outcomes. Or that the deaths of those living with disabilities in the UK go uncounted. 

As for counting at the top, it’s equally no coincidence that high-income households are undersampled in surveys. Or that even when tax data are used to adjust the picture, major wealth - $8 trillion? $32 trillion? – remains uncounted. Or that the OECD, charged with measuring the ‘misalignment’ globally between the profits of multinational companies and the actual location of their economic activity, has so far been unable to lay its hands on the necessary data.

Our choice of measure is also important – and also political. Take a look at this chart which shows how two measures, the Gini coefficient and the Palma ratio, come up with radically different answers to the same question about income distribution. Has UK wealth inequality been flat across the crisis? Or did it fall sharply, then immediately rebound even more dramatically?

The Gini coefficient embodies such strong normative views (pp. 129–144) that it doesn't capture well changes in the top 10%, or in the bottom 40% where most poverty lies. It is very encouraging (to me!) that instead the Palma ratio has featured in recent drafts of the post-2015 indicators.

The Palma – which expresses the ratio of income shares of the top 10% to the bottom 40% – also embodies a normative view, but it’s absolutely explicit about it. The chart of UK wealth distribution across the financial crisis shows why the Gini gave rise to so many congratulatory headlines about stable inequality, and why they’re wrong.

What might an actual ‘data revolution’ look like? If there’s no recognition of the political nature of the problem, then we’d be fooling ourselves to expect any great change: the same people and the same things will continue to go uncounted.

What’s noticeable in the discussion so far is that there has been a great deal more attention paid to the uncounted at the bottom than at the top. There’s been precious little mention of Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth register, for instance, or of specific measures that would eliminate anonymous company ownership, require states to exchange tax information with each other (think SwissLeaks), or multinational companies to publish country-by-country reporting (think LuxLeaks). Yet if we don’t start counting things that make elites uncomfortable, then we’re not doing it right.

Data reforms are, broadly, welcome; but a revolution remains far off.  People and things go uncounted largely for political, not technical reasons.

That’s why a data revolution is so badly needed. And revolutions aren’t technical: they’re political. 

2 Comments

1.

Alex Cobham

13th May 2015 at 15:40

Thanks Catherine, you're completely right. In my defence for focusing on quantitative data, I would just say that the temptation to treat data as being universal and somehow neutral is strongest for quantitative data.

There's certainly value in thinking about how qualitative data could enhance the revolutionary nature of post-2015...

2.

Catherine Dom

13th May 2015 at 05:26

My colleague sociologist Pip Bevan sums it in one sentence: "data is not collected, it is made". For many this seems obvious when you talk about qualitative data. But it IS true too for quantitative data, as your blog shows well. This leads me to another point - there's very little practical ideas about using other than quantitative data in all the talk about the data revolution (people's and places' stories and histories...). Or do I miss something?

Leave a comment

The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.

Documents

Author

Alex Cobham

Alex Cobham

Alex Cobham is Director of Research at the international Tax Justice Network. Over the last fifteen years Alex has held various policy and research posts, including as a research fellow at the Center for Global Development, as of chief policy adviser at Christian Aid and head of research at Save the Children (UK). Alex’s work has mainly focused on issues of taxation, horizontal and vertical inequality, and illicit financial flows. With Andy Sumner, he has proposed a new measure of inequality, the Palma. Alex was on the advisory group for the UN’s thematic consultation on inequalities in post-2015.

Read more

Related items

Political analysis as the practical art of the possible

Bringing politics back into PEA - a new paper with Adrian Leftwich

Opinion by David Hudson24th July 2014

Parliamentary strengthening: the IDC report

The need for parliamentary strengthening has never been more urgent, since parliaments - and the political parties that populate them - are the institutions people trust least. (Guest post for ODI's Shaping Policy for Development blog)

 

Opinion by Tam O'Neil9th February 2015

How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

Many well-intentioned development programmes founder in the face of resistance from entrenched elites who feel threatened by a potential loss of power and resources. Resources intended for the poor and disadvantaged benefit the rich and powerful. In response, development practitioners and academics have become keenly interested in the political factors that shape development outcomes over the past ten years.

Opinion by Mark Robinson29th January 2016

Fragmentation of the Thinking and Working Politically agenda: Should we worry?

Many different paths, but all leading to similar destinations - and adding useful nuance to development thinking and practice.  

Opinion by Thomas Parks29th August 2016

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

Political settlements: people and the landscapes of power

The problem with politics is that it involves people, and people do strange things. When development actors engage with power they often prefer to iron out the unpredictability of real politics in favour of the much neater lines of trends and social groups. We revere drivers of change studies because we can cope with the long-term, identity-based analysis of `deep’ politics. 

Opinion by Alan Whaites24th July 2015

Fixing aid: we can't turn off the tap at the first sign of corruption

Much 'petty' corruption is about the poor using what little power they have to stave off destitution. (Guest post for The Conversation)

Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Innovation has become a popular word in international development. In Australia today, Bjorn Lomborg helped to formally open DFAT’s development innovation hub innovationXchange, which is designed to ‘identify, trial and scale up successful approaches’. Other donors, including the US and the UK, are also promoting innovation through initiatives like the Development Innovation Ventures programme.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015

Gender analysis, and thinking and working politically – bridging the gap

Guest post on Devpolicy  introducing panels at this week's Australasian Aid Conference

Opinion by Chris Roche14th February 2017

Why are Africa's poor more likely than the rich to pay a bribe for public services?

The poor aren't simply 'easy targets' - they necessarily come into contact with corrupt state officials more often.

Opinion by Caryn Peiffer19th January 2017

Where do inclusive institutions come from? Lessons from Asia

Societies with more inclusive institutions are more peaceful and more resilient, and tend to be better governed - but how do they get there?

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal27th February 2017

Gender and power: six links and one big opportunity

Donors have recently made great efforts to understand power in partner countries. Yet they have largely ignored one of the most pervasive power relations – gender.

Opinion by Diana Koester21st May 2015

Bringing Political Economy Analysis in from the cold

Once seen as a 'transformative' tool to change donor thinking, does much PEA now do little to help staff think and work politically?

Opinion by Jonathan Fisher6th May 2014

'Sticky’ change: What international development can learn from adaptive management

Promoting and sustaining individual behavioural change is as important as building flexibility into development programming.

Opinion by Greg Power2nd December 2016

Medellin - more than a miracle

Bad news sells. And for news editors looking for horror stories to recycle, Colombia's second largest city used to be a reliable source.

Opinion by Cheryl Stonehouse4th March 2014

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Thinking and Working Politically presents development to us as an endeavour embedded within power structures. This is so important.

It helps us see clearly that we need to understand domestic politics to deliver development outcomes. Who are the players? Who makes decisions? Who will stand to lose from a proposal and how can they block progress?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

What's in a name? Leadership as more than the 'big men' and 'big women' of history

A more nuanced understanding of good developmental leadership demands a shift away from the conventional focus on 'big' individuals.

Opinion by Heather Lyne de Ver11th February 2014

The politics of redistribution: we need you

Share your thoughts on episodes of redistribution that have helped redress inequality, and help us shape new research into the politics behind them. 

Opinion by David Hudson16th October 2014

Developmental leaders, 'dirty hands', and the dark side of collaboration

Should donors support developmental leaders who gain or keep power through questionable means? 

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi11th December 2013

Thinking about women and girls makes development work better for everyone

A look at what happens when gender analysis is placed more squarely at the heart of governance work. (Guest post in The Conversation)

Opinion by Orlanda Ward7th March 2017

What's so 'African' about African leadership?

Does a focus on 'African' leadership obscure the rich and diverse nature of Africa's many states and get in the way of useful lessons from other parts of the world?

Opinion by Suda Perera1st April 2014

The practicalities of change: Positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

Anna Naupa's 2016 Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture discussed where most transformation happens - in drafting the rules, or in putting them into action.

Opinion by Anna Naupa13th April 2016

Taking the Results agenda to the next level?

On new book The Politics of Evidence and Results in International Development

Opinion by Chris Roche15th July 2015

Breaking new ground in parliamentary strengthening

The importance of tailoring parliamentary support programmes to their context. (Guest post for openDemocracy)

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

Gender - the power relationship that Political Economy Analysis forgot?

While most development research is well on the way to embedding gender analysis, PEA - many donors' key analytical tool - largely ignores it.

 

Opinion by Evie Browne13th February 2014

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Reflections from last week's Australasian Aid Conference and DLP’s 2016 Annual Conference, both hosted at Australian universities. 

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

What do we do on Monday? Political settlements in theory and practice

The political settlements framework can seem a distraction to some practitioners, many of whom have been thinking and working politically about development for a number of years. They find the term difficult to define with any precision and, in any case, quite unnecessary. In the real world, progress towards better understanding of and engagement with the political conditions which help and hinder development has been ticking along nicely, independently of the academic debates.

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

Connections, contradictions and the political economy of attention

How can we encourage creativity, even in risk-averse organisations? How can we protect our attention resources?

I listened to two interesting LSE podcasts recently which got me thinking more about creativity following on from a recent blog I posted about the current interest in innovation. Some even suggest the ‘innovation imperative’ is a mega trend.

Opinion by Chris Roche7th May 2015

Does talking about corruption make it seem worse?

Guest post for The Guardian's Global Development Professionals Network

Inequality – the politics behind the policies

Discussion starter for the #polinequality conference

Opinion by David Hudson11th February 2015

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

The Developmental Leadership Program will host its 2016 Annual Conference at La Trobe University in Melbourne on 8 February. Its theme is ‘Power, Politics and Positive Deviance’.

Opinion by Chris Roche1st December 2015

Welcome to DLP's blog

Welcome to DLP's new blog on politics, power, policy and developmental leadership

Opinion by Heather Marquette10th December 2013

Don't give up on government

Can the World Bank's flagship World Development Report inspire a good governance revolution that delivers development gains?

Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

From functional governance to sustainable peace: Making the space to reflect, learn and adapt

Learning how to balance the technically possible and politically feasible in volatile, conflict-affected contexts.

Opinion by Aditi Haté 22nd February 2017

DLP political settlements workshop: reflections

Serendipity, perhaps. I joined the Political Settlements Research Programme at the beginning of June; my first formal engagement was on June 17, at the Political Settlements Workshop organised by the Developmental Leadership Program. It was quite an induction day.

Opinion by Astrid Jamar22nd July 2015

International donors - aiding or abetting?

In September 2012, lawyers representing an Ethiopian farmer announced that they planned to sue the UK government for its role in human rights violations in Ethiopia. The farmer, named in court papers as “Mr O”, alleged that the Ethiopian government’s “villagisation” programme had involved the forced resettlement of thousands of families including his own.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

More room for politics in the inequality debate?

This month at DLP our focus is largely on corruption as we prepare for a collaborative event in London discussing 'Corruption and development'. Yet we could hardly fail to notice that inequality, a hot topic since Pikettymania and the theme of our conference earlier in the year, has resurfaced with a vengeance.

Opinion by David Hudson24th June 2015

Gender in impact evaluation: norms as well as numbers

The World’s Women 2015, recently released by the UN, tells us that in 2015 women held 22% of parliamentary seats – almost double the level recorded in 1997 (12%).

Opinion by Gillian Fletcher27th November 2015

The curious case of Indian autocracy and what it tells us about 'thinking and working politically'

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a national emergency in India, which led to an 18-month period of autocracy. Civil rights were suspended, political opponents and journalists were arrested without the right to trial, censorship was imposed, elections were cancelled, non-Congress state governments were dismissed, the constitution changed.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi25th June 2015

When the stars align to tackle inequality: reflections on the DLP annual conference

From the Occupy Movement to Thomas Piketty to current proposals for a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, inequality has emerged as one of the most intractable challenges of our time, and everyone, from activists to academics to policymakers, is talking about it. 

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal18th February 2015

Anthropology and elites: 'Studying up', politically

The parallels between - and ethical dilemmas of - anthropology's focus on context and international development's ‘thinking and working politically’ concept. 

Opinion by Paul Robert Gilbert10th March 2016

Climate change and adaptation in the Pacific Islands: watering down women's security?

Beyond 'adaptability'? In this guest post, Nicole George highlights the work of women leaders who are challenging a narrow adaptation agenda.

Opinion by Nicole George7th March 2014

Different development: walk the talk

Spent the day at a ‘Doing Development Differently’ event recently and, while it offered a great opportunity to meet and hear from fascinating, dedicated, thoughtful people, I came away somewhat disheartened. Why? Because:

Opinion by Gillian Fletcher14th April 2015

Resources and reflections on gender and thinking and working politically

Next week's meeting of the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice will focus on gender at an opportune time. It follows a spate of interesting papers, blog posts and talks about the relationship between 'thinking and working politically' and gender issues. 

Opinion by Chris Roche12th June 2015

Transparency and Accountability: learning through collaboration

How can the impact of transparency and accountability work be deepened? 

Opinion by Brendan Halloran10th June 2014

Two remarkable transitions: lessons from Oman and Somaliland

We tend to look through the political settlements lens only at places experiencing either conflict or deep poverty – or both. Yet we would know much more about how useful the lens is if we examined more successes with it. Areas of stability and calm, especially in regions where near neighbours seem to be struggling to resolve strife, might teach us something about how historical experiences do or don’t chime with contemporary donor practices.

Opinion by Sarah Phillips20th July 2015

Using aid to strengthen Parliaments: fix the car, or worry about the driver?

Parliaments have always been treated as the poor cousins of democracy assistance efforts. (Guest post for From Poverty to Power)

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

Uncounted: has the post-2015 data revolution failed already?

Counting matters. As the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report puts it: What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted…. [I]f metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be inferences we draw.

Opinion by Alex Cobham12th May 2015

Development cooperation and fighting corruption: thinking differently

Everyone associates Brazil with football and the World Cup. Brazilians pouring out onto the street last summer to protest the competition being hosted in their country was last thing many of us expected to see.

Opinion by Heather Marquette24th June 2015

Do donors have realistic expectations of their staff when it comes to 'thinking and working politically'?

Is learning to ‘think politically’ like learning a new language? 

Opinion by Heather Marquette9th June 2014

Beyond the limits: can we Think and Work Politically to achieve the SDGs?

How international development agencies need to change to confound the sceptics. (Guest post for the OECD's Institutions and Stability blog)

Opinion by Heather Marquette4th February 2016

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015