Data Philanthropy in MENA: Mapping the landscape

September 7, 2022

Abed Khooli
ICT Specialist

Center for Continuing Education
Birzeit University

When the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were announced in 2015, it was anticipated that multi-stakeholder partnerships (Goal 17) would work towards achieving them. Partnerships were to include private-sector commitments and resource mobilization to support governments to achieve and track the SDGs —including in the digital and data systems strengthening.

However, as of 2022, the Goals remain far from being met. External stressors, including COVID-19, are partly to blame, with the situation likely deteriorating due to the Ukraine war. As it stands, targets are far from being met, even in OECD countries. Within this context, public-private partnerships do not appear to be having the level of impact that was envisaged in 2015.

In the field of public-private data collaboration, very little is currently known about companies’ contributions to governments’ collection and use of data to help achieve and track the SDGs. In other words, there is a data gap around the impact of companies’ data philanthropy on public policy outcomes.

To fill this gap, Birzeit University’s Center for Continuing Education (CCE) is participating in a global study led by Cepei and LIRNEasia, funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC). To date, CCE has contributed to the project by mapping companies’ data-related contributions to governments in 15 countries in the MENA region (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen). The results of the work can be found on our project page. This blog entry summarizes some of our key findings.

Insights on public-private SDG data collaboration in the MENA region

The MENA region is relatively uniform in culture and language but diverse in income and political stability. Some countries in the region rank among the poorest in the world, while others are among the richest. Some countries are politically and economically stable, while others suffer from war and occupation. Many countries are also affected by regional disruption and experience further stresses on public resources due to migration by refugees and internally displaced people. SDG progress indexes for the region reflect these realities. We could only find a few examples of substantive public-private data partnerships through our mapping. A critical early reflection is that most commitments we identified were related to adopting the SDGs as part of companies’ operations (e.g., cutting carbon emissions or reducing the gender pay gap) rather than as part of their main commercial activities. 

Like the rest of the world, the region was severely hit by COVID-19, causing a reduction in the returns of many companies and a diversion of available resources to cope with the health crisis. Although data is vital for resilience in general and health resilience in particular, most interventions by the private sector were not data actions (health data is mainly a public sector responsibility and has complicated or absent policies to work with). Notwithstanding the above, a fascinating insight from our mapping work was that COVID-19 exposed the lack of resilience, sped up digital transformation efforts, and underlined the need for better data that could help in SDG tracking (over 100 targets out of 169 have no data available for the Arab region).

A further trend that we identified is that most company contributions to the SDGs in the region take place as part of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects, either as charitable contributions or as a means to enhance corporate image. Within this context, there was a noticeable focus on COVID-19 relief efforts relating to social protection or social distancing that relied heavily on mobile phone-derived data.

In many poorer countries, international and regional actors (mostly donors, either directly or through grants to NGOs that act as interlocutors between public and private entities) contribute the lion’s share of funding to data actions that support SDG implementation and reporting. Richer countries in the region tend to be self-reliant. Private sector indirect participation may also occur through foundations or contributions to government, donors, or other actors’ efforts. These channels were hard to track within the limitations of the mapping study.  

Concerningly, companies in the region appear to have a minimal presence regarding global fora and consultations designed to track public-private data partnerships. For example, minimal private sector involvement is observed for global online consultations on SDGs 4, 5, 14, 15, and 17 (2022). On the annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) inputs platform, only nine contributions, out of over 850, were found by public-private partnerships. It is also noted that none of the MENA countries are listed in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN), but MENA entities are associated with the Mediterranean network. While some private sector inactivity may be attributed to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, there would appear to be a general absence of sustained engagement by companies in even the main fora and processes such as the Global Compact or Publishers Compact

Apart from a limited number of indicators, and regardless of private-sector participation or lack thereof, SDG data available in the region is not disaggregated across gender (a cross-domain area and the 5th goal) and other demographic dimensions. This tends to be a global issue but is more pronounced in the Global South. For example, none of the MENA countries is a member of the Inclusive Data Charter, and the region only improved three points in the SDG gender index since 2015. There is also a considerable gender gap in mobile ownership and usage, leading to limitations on using big data in disaggregated measures. Gender equality remains the region’s major challenge.

Several countries in MENA lack appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for data management and governance (freedom of information acts, data sharing regulations, data privacy, data protection laws, etc.). Some recently enacted such laws. This is a significant obstacle for actors trying to help in data actions.

Despite the wealth of several countries and companies in the region, further exciting insight from our mapping work is that companies engaged in multi-country public-private data partnerships mostly tend to be from the Global North. Technology companies such as Esri, Meta, Google, and Microsoft engage with governments in several countries, mainly offering to share data on particular issues of public importance. Despite evidence of these partnerships, what is less clear is the extent to which national governments are benefiting from such data actions for the SDGs. 

In terms of impact, there is little evidence (apart from data mapped in online visuals or citations in Voluntary National Review (VNR) reports) that data actions are being utilized or implemented —let alone tracking any impact of such interventions. The impact is usually hard to measure, even when data actions are used. Releasing open data may not be enough, and further steps in discoverability and technical skills are required. A lack of capacity also reduces the benefits from private-sector data shared publicly, even if it relates to SDGs directly.

Reflections and next steps in our work

Our research to date has shown that there are examples of public-private data partnerships taking place in the MENA region, but their full potential has not been realized. Much more can be done. 

As a project, we aim to explore public-private data partnerships in more detail in the coming months, undertaking a series of case studies into successful examples to learn lessons about what works and what does not. This research will be published on our project site in due course and will inform our advocacy through 2023, aimed at helping to surface the gaps and barriers to greater public-private collaboration. Ultimately, we hope to contribute to improvements in how these partnerships are formed and implemented, ensuring that there is visibility and impact that helps rekindle the spirit of Goal 17.

This blog was written by Abed Khooli, who works in the field of data for development. Abed worked as a developer, researcher, and advisor on several data science and open data projects nationally and regionally. He developed platforms and content and participated in regional data projects.

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