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COVID-19's Impact on SDG Data

How has the global pandemic affected data collection and analysis for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Disruptions to the SDGs

COVID-19’s impact on SDG progress is widely documented. The UN’s most recent SDG Report reveals “the global extreme poverty rate rose for the first time in over 20 years” and “an additional 101 million children have fallen below the minimum reading proficiency level, potentially wiping out two decades of education gains.” Domestic violence and child marriage is on the rise, as is gender income inequality. This is in addition to the more obvious impacts on the global economy and health sectors.

The Goalkeepers report from the Gates Foundation further highlights that while employment levels for men are on track to recover to pre-pandemic rates, women’s employment will remain 13 millions jobs below the 2019 rate. Moreover, 30+ million children have missed vaccines — 10 million more than before the pandemic.

Statistics like these are essential to understanding COVID-19’s direct and indirect effects on global development. They also highlight the importance of National Statistics Offices (NSOs) and the role global data stewards play in tracking trends. As vital as these entities are, they too have been disrupted by the pandemic, highlighting deficiencies while also prompting innovation. In this article we answer the question: How has COVID-19 impacted data around the SDGs?

Data and the Sustainable Development Goals Report

Measuring and tracking the Global Goals is a key focus of the UN SDG Report referenced above. The UN report states:

The pandemic has brought to the forefront the critical importance of data. It has also accelerated the transformation of data and statistical systems and how the public perceives and uses that information. As policy and decision makers were pressuring data providers for more up-to-date and accurate information, national statistical offices (NSOs) and their partners stepped up to the challenge. They forged new collaborations and leveraged alternative data solutions while increasing efforts to protect data privacy and confidentiality.

Despite disruptions, NSOs have not only coped, but adapted and evolved. In fact, from 2019 to 2021, the number of indicators tracked rose from 160 to 211.

The UN report further states:

NSOs have adopted new methods and tools to come up with data and have played a central role in Governments’ COVID-19 responses. As of September 2020, 82 per cent of NSOs were involved in data collection on COVID-19 and its impacts, some through innovative methods such as online and telephone-based surveys, as well as the use of administrative, credit card and scanner data.

While NSOs made developments in the face of uncertainty, the pandemic also highlighted inadequacies and interrupted data gathering. For instance, going into 2020, less than two-thirds of countries had a sufficient death registration system making simple questions like “how many people have died from COVID?” difficult to answer. NSOs stopped the majority of household surveys and census operations — key tools in tracking SDG progress. The result: a majority of countries now lack usable data for a variety of reporting needs.

These challenges also prompted innovation and investment. Nearly 60% of NSOs indicated that information and communication technology had improved in the previous six months. Many countries began implementing geospatial data to supplement existing data sources and established partnerships with private organizations to leverage previously untapped information resources.

UNStats and World Bank COVID Impact Reports

While the UN Report provides a high level overview of SDG data and how COVID-19 impacted it, we need to turn to global reports focused on statistical operations during the pandemic to really understand the specifics.

In 2020, UNStats and The World Bank conducted a series of surveys of NSOs to assess how the pandemic was affecting data collection and analysis. They released these reports in June, August and December of 2020 and May 2021. Important findings include:

  • In the first year of the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of NSOs were fully or partially closed.
  • 96% ended face-to-face data collection.
  • 90% of low and lower middle-income countries struggled to meet international reporting requirements.
  • NSO staff skill sets and training were often deemed to be insufficient in light of the new requirements and methodologies.
  • Most NSOs pivoted to focus on COVID-19 related data demonstrating the importance of statistical systems. However, this change added more burden to already under resourced offices.
  • By Q3 of 2020, NSOs were adapting new methodologies and establishing new partnerships with public and private sectors to ensure reliable data collection. Geospatial data is identified as a significant supplement to existing systems, but NSOs in lower-income countries express a capacity gap to implement.
  • By mid-2021, face-to-face data collection resumed in 44% of countries.
  • The gap between higher and lower-income countries becomes increasingly clear as 81% of lower-income countries say their survey systems are lacking compared to 61% of higher-income countries.
  • NSO staff adapt to working from home and rely on telephone and internet surveys to complete their work in the face of ongoing challenges.
COVID Disruptions and Income — May 2021 Report

Evaluating Progress on SDG Data Using CTGAP Standards

The UNStats and World Bank surveys were designed to provide timely insights into the challenges NSOs faced during COVID-19. However, the scope of the project did not include long-term review. For that perspective, we turn to the UN Statistical Commission and their work related to the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data (CTGAP).

In 2017 the UN Statistical Commission officially adopted the CTGAP to “address gaps in national statistics and statistical coordination identified in response to the 2030 Agenda.” This document outlined six strategic areas of focus necessary to ensuring accurate, efficient and timely collection, analysis, and dissemination of data related to the SDGs. These six areas serve as the benchmark for evaluating data systems that support the Global Goals.

Following the survey model used in 2020 and 2021, the World Bank’s Development Data Group, the Statistics Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNSD), and the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) surveyed global NSOs to evaluate progress on the CTGAP goals and outline challenges and progress from the previous 5 years including the impacts of COVID-19. They conducted research in Q4 2021 and reported findings in 2022.

You can view the full report here. Key messages from the document include:

  • Despite making progress, we have not yet addressed significant capacity gaps, especially in less developed regions.
  • National legislation has not kept up with the needs of rapidly changing data needs.
  • NSOs have improved coordination with national and international partners, but gaps, especially in lower-income countries, still remain.
  • Improving administrative and geospatial data is a high priority for over 80% of NSOs, but they need funding to make these improvements.
  • NSOs need to improve their data visualization, communication, and dissemination to adhere to best open data practices.
  • Almost all lower-income countries expressed a need for capacity development around new technologies, methodologies, data management and analysis, especially in light of COVID-related adjustments to data gathering.
  • Despite major COVID-related stresses, most NSOs do not feel like their ability to meet data needs has suffered; rather most have been able to remain resilient.
  • Connectivity and remote data processing capabilities remain inadequate, especially in lower-income countries.
  • Moderate or severe delays in budget disbursement hampered the work of two-thirds of International Development Association countries.

New Tools for Global Data Services

The Report also highlights the launch of two global tools designed to improve data services globally that “will use the measured progress and demand to contribute to the implementation of the CTGAP.”:

  1. The Bern Network launched the Clearinghouse for Financial Development Data. This online platform provides data on over 36,000 projects. It includes dashboards on funding commitments and receipts, as well as a searchable database of documents and shared resources.
  2. The World Bank introduced the Global Data Facility. This fund is designed to support data and statistic priorities in order to “enable exponential improvements of and strengthened human capacity for data collection, data management, data governance, data analysis, data sharing, and data use and reuse for transformational social and economic development.”

These financial tools promise to improve investment in global statistical operations and thus address some of the lingering challenges brought on by the pandemic. You can look forward to our team’s coverage of these two initiatives in the near future.

UN Statistical Commission Coverage

The intersection between COVID-19 and the CTGAP was the topic of a side session at the recent UN Statistical Commission. If you would like to follow this discussion further, we highly recommend you take the time to hear from the experts behind the report as well as implementers on the ground through this online resource.

Conclusions

COVID-19 and the resulting disruptions has increased the burden and challenges faced by NSOs that were already under resourced. However, despite early challenges in 2020, most national entities responsible for collecting and reporting on data are now mostly back on track. NSOs have implemented new methodologies — especially around geospatial, administrative, and private organization data — at a rapid pace. While a persistent data gap from this period will remain, the overall number of targets that the global community is able to track has actually increased. In short, the pandemic not only highlighted the need for robust data systems, it also prompted innovation and improvement. We still have significant work to do to achieve the benchmarks set by the CTGAP, but we continue to make progress.

SDGCounting is a program of StartingUpGood and tracks the progress of counting and measuring the success of the SDGs. Check us out on Twitter.

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