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Lack of data makes it harder to fix real poverty

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Data poverty makes it harder to fix real poverty. That’s why the UN should push countries to gather and share data.

In September 2000, all United Nations member states agreed to adopt the Millennium Development Goals, eight targets to guide global development until 2015. It was an unprecedented global consensus about how to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Those goals expire this year. The final report tells of tremendous progress on some targets. Extreme poverty has more than halved, the gender gap in primary education has largely disappeared, and the spread of HIV/AIDS has slowed.

But critics have long pointed out that the data on MDG progress is patchy and impossible to corroborate. World Bank researchers report that only 77 of the 155 countries they studied collect reliable data on poverty. The UN itself issued a 2014 report stating that data deprivation “can lead to the denial of basic rights, and for the planet, to continued environmental degradation,” and calling for a “data revolution.”

As researchers working in South Asia – a region that remains home to the highest number of people living in extreme poverty – we have witnessed the pervasive effects of data deprivation on the ground. For instance, we recently asked tax administrators in Pakistan about work challenges, assuming that underreporting would be the crux of their woes, as is usually the case. Instead these administrators described the hardest challenge as identifying how much tax a citizen has already paid. Absent usable data systems, they cannot verify sums collected and so require taxpayers to document taxes paid – a daunting task in a system dominated by cash payments and withholding schemes. Since most taxpayers fail to provide such evidence, the tax administration is unable to undertake basic tasks such as providing refunds, and therefore cannot implement a fair and effective tax system.

The UN is currently creating a list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), intended to take the place of the MDG, which will shape how governments and NGOs allocate an estimated $2.5 trillion of aid over the next 15 years. The UN released a preliminary draft on June 2 and will finalize the SDGs in September. Goal 17 vaguely addresses data deprivation, by stating an aim to build on existing initiatives and “support statistical capacity building in developing countries.”

But a country’s capacity to produce and use statistics does not only require investment in the infrastructure needed to collect, collate, and open up their administrative data to the public, particularly researchers. It also depends on political economy considerations, which thus far have been left out of the conversation.

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