Data revolution… for whom?

A ton of data isn’t much good if you can’t use it for anything. Or if you can’t even get to it.

So with the data and accountability revolution growing in international development, we need to be thinking about who needs what data to hold whom accountable?

Large scale data for tracking comparative data across countries is certainly important. But what about the people of poor countries who could use data to hold government officials – national and/or local – accountable?

Both are important, but for people anywhere to be truly empowered they need more than the international community looking out for them. They need the information to look out for themselves – and not just to have information, but to have mechanisms for consistent access to useful information.

This statement contains two parts. I’ll start with the end: “useful information.”

Big STATA datasets or meta-evaluations are probably not much use in rural areas. Nor are national-level indicators. Local accountability means that people need to know how to track how their kids are doing in school, not the national average test scores disaggregated by gender.

The second part of that sentence is: “mechanisms for consistent access.”

Creating real mechanisms for people to hold local officials and national governments accountable is something that’s received scant attention in most high-level development circles, at least until recently. Ironically, the “data revolution” and pivot towards “results” in development may actually be working against this – students’ test scores are a lot easier to measure than the effectiveness of community-based school management mechanisms, and the money follows the measures these days. Of course, this is damn near impossible in some countries – Zimbabwe comes to mind, but also tricky in a tightly-controlled place like Ethiopia. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t places where the development community can pursue local accountability and learn something about it.

And there is interest, both from above and below. Examples include:

  • The Million Voices project put out its report recently. Two key phrases for me (from the summary findings – i’m not that much of a nerd, and i recently got netflix) were: 1) “people consistently ranked honest and responsive government” as one of their highest priorities; and 2) People “see the data revolution as the foundation for an accountability revolution.” But not everyone is a data jock. Not all data is useful to people with limited education or resources; and even when you do have those things, all data must be interpreted. For this, people need consistent access to useful information that they can interpret themselves; eg, their kid’s report card.
  • Lant Prichett, a brainy professor from Harvard, has a new book about education – haven’t read it, but I did see him speak about it. His basic thesis is: development orgs & national policymakers need to stop focusing on inputs (teacher training, books, classrooms, ICTs, graduations) and start focusing on what kids are learning. Key to this for Pritchett is more adaptive systems, which means local control of schools, which means consistent access to useful information that they can interpret themselves… 
  • Last, just a quick mention of development blog gold, in the From Poverty to Power blog, on social accountability NGO Twaweza. Will write more reaction to this when I make the time.

At risk of being repetitive: consistent access to useful information that they can interpret themselves

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About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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