“We also call for a data revolution for sustainable development, with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to people and governments.”High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda
On May 30, 2013, the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, received what turned out to be a seminal report from the High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda he had commissioned a year earlier. The Panel, co-chaired by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, challenged governments and sustainable development actors, in general, to do a better job when it comes to data for development. Their call for a data revolution for sustainable development was a rallying call to bring innovation, multi-stakeholders, and ambition to improve statistics and information. Since then, a lot has happened.
The call for an international initiative catalyzed the creation of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) and drew into the data for development fold private sector institutions that were not common fixtures in the discourse or even the conferences on data and sustainable development. The UN established the World Data Forum and created a biennial, multistakeholder gathering to galvanize support and participation in the field. In 2021, the World Bank published its World Development Report, “Data for Better Lives,” which focused on the issue of data for development, bringing a new language and a new framework for stakeholders to organize around.
While a great deal of attention since then has been placed on the actions by governments and civil society to explore, experiment, and innovate to bring new technologies, new data sources, and new approaches to bear, not as much attention has been paid to what the private sector has been doing to contribute to this effort.
As a result, several research hubs across Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have set out to find out. With support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) based in Canada, in 2022, we embarked on a two-year project to map, study and advocate for more effective public-private data partnerships to help achieve the SDGs.
As a part of this project and to better understand where things stand regarding private sector engagement in the data for development space in Africa, the Local Development Research Institute (LDRI) conducted a desktop scan for possible data actions by private sector actors in the last 5 to 7 years to determine the extent to which they were active in the broader data revolution for sustainable development. We found inspiration in the High-Level Panel’s observation that “a true data revolution would draw on existing and new sources of data to fully integrate statistics into decision-making, promote open access to, and use of, data and ensure increased support for statistical systems.” Our findings were then synthesised into a global report, incorporating those of our colleagues around the world.
We found documented examples, with varying levels of detail, of data actions that had been implemented or were being implemented in 22 African countries.
We were on the lookout for actions in research, data sharing, data reporting, impact assessment/measurement, capacity building, funding, technical service provision, or contributing to data governance. We found 13 examples of data actions in which private sector institutions played a major role.
Across the sample it seems the most common data actions are data sharing followed by capacity building. A number of these are country-agnostic while some have the potential to scale but are only present in a few countries.
Drivers and enablers
Common pain points and opportunities appear to be the two main drivers for data actions. Generally, most data actions feature a group of partners coming together to participate in the data action. These “coalitions” were in some instances driven by a common pain, such as the need to provide insights and evidence for COVID-19 response measures (Orange Burkina Faso and the Ministry of Health’s CORUS) or address the impact of emission on climate change (Clean Cargo).
In other instances, they were driven by a common opportunity, such as Lumos and its counterparts in the Nigerian off-grid market results-based financing scheme where they were incentivized to share data in order to access the financing.
Two additional enablers in many of the instances where the data action was done as part of a consortium were the availability of grant financing and the presence of a strong convening partner. The GPSDD is a notable example of a strong convening partner. Funders such as the World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UKAid came up in some examples as providing grant financing for a number of the consortiums, allowing a private sector institution to participate without the risk of hurting their bottom line.
However, these drivers did not seem to be a factor in the majority of instances where the data action was undertaken by a single multinational actor. Uber, Google, IBM and ESRI, all global multinational brands, are examples of private sector actors who implemented data actions on their own without necessarily being part of a consortium. Other than in Uber’s example, all the others were designed to promote their technology and possibly contribute to developing their revenue pipeline.
Success and outcomes
In Ghana, with the convening support of the GPSDD, the Ministry of Health, Vodacom and Flowminder, came together on the shared challenge of improving the quality of data for decision-making in the context of the SDGs. The partnership came out of the first UN World Data Forum held in Cape Town in 2017.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, they leveraged their partnership to contribute to the data challenge faced by the government in responding to the crisis. This Ghana example is particularly interesting because, while they didn’t initially convene around the COVID-19 pandemic, they were able to rapidly operationalize a response due to their pre-existing agreement and bring a new data source to close data gaps in the pandemic response.
However, for many of the examples we came across it is not possible to objectively tell how successful they were. The information available did not provide a clear theory of change or updates on what happened once the data action was completed. This may only be possible to establish through further primary research.
It seems that clear incentives and agreements were key in order for private sector actors to engage in a data action for sustainable development. In almost all instances, if the data action was connected to concrete value, it was likely to be both scalable and replicable. Finding ways in which to frame mutually beneficial partnerships and collaborate with the private sector in ways that contribute to their interests, or respond to their perceived risks to revenue, may unlock and accelerate improvements to quality, quantity, and velocity of data for decision-making.
Moving forward, we now plan to dig a little deeper into what has made some of these partnerships successful, and what could be done to strengthen them further. In the coming months, we will be publishing our case study findings and through 2023 hope to engage with companies, UN bodies, governments and civil society to share our findings and recommendations on how public-private data partnerships can be improved as we move into the Decade of Action.
This blog was written by Muchiri Nyaggah. He is the Executive Director of the Local Development Research Institute, an action-oriented think-tank supporting efforts of African countries to end hunger, poverty and reduce inequality.