On 15 May 2019, Lynn Woolfrey, Manager of Datafirst, a UCT-based unit that supports data-intensive Africa-focused research, presented a talk entitled: How Data-ready are African Governments to Monitor SDG Progress?. The seminar was attended by 15 people, hailing from different departments of UCT, as well as representatives from the private sector, civil society and the City of Cape Town.

Lynn Woolfrey started by providing an overview of the work of Datafirst and giving a demonstration of their online Open Data repository, which is the only internationally certified data repository in Africa.

Data gaps have been identified as one of the main constraints in achieving international development goals. With a total of 17 Goals, 169 targets and 232 individual indicators, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pose an even greater data challenge for governments compared to the previous Millennium Development Goals, but they can also be seen as an opportunity for governments to build better policy data systems.

Woolfrey based her findings on two SDG Indicator Data-Readiness Assessments conducted in Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2018. These were part of a larger United Nations (UN) “Capacity-building” project, the UNSD-DFID Project on SDG Monitoring, which tackles the challenges of SDG planning and monitoring by assessing data needs, building data platforms and conducting a detailed investigation of the capacity of National Statistical System (NSS) agencies to compile indicators of SDG progress.

Overall, the UN has found that African SDG indicator data sources are often outdated or opaque, that SDG indicators are often not necessarily aligned to country Development Plans and that most country indicators are not available at the required level of disaggregation (e.g. sex and rural/urban area type).

The assessment showed that current statistical capacity, or the sum of SDG indicators currently available and easy to compile in Zambia was 38% and in Zimbabwe stood at 42%. In Zambia, a disproportionate amount  of the currently available data (93%) was held by the Central Statistical Office and about half of this data comes from statistical sources such as censuses and surveys. According to Woolfrey this indicates a lack of data sharing systems within the different agencies that are part of the NSS, but also the potential to make more use of administrative databases as a useful and cost-effective source for SDG indicator construction. In Zimbabwe, 64% of data sources for SDG indicator reporting come from administrative databases.

In both countries, the assessment found that the underlying causes for the limited capacities of NSS to report on the SDGs derive from inadequate budgets and staff shortages, and in the case of Zimbabwe, frequent policy changes and staff reshuffling. However, a key constraint in SDG reporting lies in the lack of interoperable development data infrastructure, including the lack of clear data dissemination policies. Only 4% and 7% of data in Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively is downloadable directly from the NSS websites as an Excel, CSV or other structured file for easy data processing and very little data sharing takes place even among different NSS agencies in the same country.

An Open Government Data policy commitment could allow for more coordinated data sharing within NSS and with the UN System without the need for ad hoc reporting mechanisms. In Africa, countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tunisia and Botswana have already made this commitment.

UN agencies also have an important role to play in pushing for open data policies, but currently the UN itself relies on ad hoc interventions which are not coordinated with earlier data capacity-building projects or other UN agencies working in-country. Moreover, the UN and other multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and IMF tend to place emphasis on technological solutions over a “bigger picture” approach that includes long-term institutional change.

Woolfrey’s presentation was followed by questions from the audience on the capacity, accountability and autonomy of national statistical agencies in Africa. In response, Woolfrey stressed the importance of distinguishing between the need to build capacity of both data and IT specialists to secure data as a resource as well as the infrastructure required to manage it and the benefits of open data and its use as opposed to mere data sharing.

  • The next SDG seminar is scheduled to take place on 19 June 2019 with ACC researcher Liza Rose Cirolia presenting on the SDGs and local finance.