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

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

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
Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

The politics of redistribution: we need you

Which are the key country cases? Help us shape new research.

Opinion by David Hudson16th October 2014

Two remarkable transitions: lessons from Oman and Somaliland

Political settlements and international power structures

Opinion by Sarah Phillips20th July 2015

Parliamentary strengthening: the IDC report

Having presented evidence to the UK's International Development Committee, what of the final report?

Opinion by Tam O'Neil9th February 2015

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Given the fascination with 'innovation' in the field of development, it's time to discuss what the word might mean.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015

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

Medellin - more than a miracle

From the most murderous city on earth to 'a new global standard for urban policy': the politics of change in the wake of crisis

Opinion by Cheryl Stonehouse4th March 2014

Inequality – the politics behind the policies

Discussion starter for the #polinequality conference

Opinion by David Hudson11th February 2015

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Reflections from two conferences

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

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

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015

International donors - aiding or abetting?

The 'donor's dilemma' is discussed in a new DLP paper.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

'Power, politics and positive deviance' is the theme of DLP's 2016 annual conference.

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

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

The value of the political settlements framework

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 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

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

The ambiguities of supporting 'developmental leadership'

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi11th December 2013

Gender - the power relationship that Political Economy Analysis forgot?

Why more questions about gender relations could help

Opinion by Evie Browne13th February 2014

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

How women leaders are challenging a narrow adaptation agenda.

Opinion by Nicole George7th March 2014

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

Looking beyond 'The Leader' for a deeper understanding of how change happens

Opinion by Heather Lyne de Ver11th February 2014
Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Why bring gender into Thinking and Working Politically?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

Does talking about corruption make it seem worse?

Guest post for The Guardian's Global Development Professionals Network