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How data can help address crises and support an equitable economic recovery

A man rides a boat past toll plaza amid flood water on main Indus highway, following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Sehwan, Pakistan, September 15, 2022.        REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/File Photo        TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY        SEARCH "GLOBAL POY" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2022 PACKAGES.

In 2022, floods in Pakistan led to a huge humanitarian response. Image: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/File Photo.

Adrian Lovett
Chief Executive Officer, Development Initiatives
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The New Data Economy

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • The global economy continues to face significant challenges brought on by multiple crises, which can exacerbate existing inequalities.
  • Following a record increase in 2022, the levels of humanitarian need are set to rise again in 2023, driven by system-wide shocks, such as climate change and the war in Ukraine.
  • Global leaders must address these challenges by investing in nationally owned data systems that are sustainable, inclusive, and tailored to local needs.

As hundreds of global leaders arrive in the Chinese city of Tianjin for the World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos”, the predicted 35C daily temperatures will feel very different to the wintry version in the Swiss Alps. But while the climate may be novel, the theme of the meeting will be familiar and timely: how can entrepreneurship drive economic recovery?

As I join the discussions in Tianjin, two things are clear to me: first, economic recovery must be broadly shared. Long-term prosperity requires a more equitable, sustainable and resilient global economy that addresses the multiple crises that risk leaving too many behind. And second, as any entrepreneur knows, every plan for progress needs robust, reliable data. To harness the entrepreneurial energy needed for a truly equitable economic recovery, we must all become data champions.

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This need for good data is especially critical for the growing number of people caught up in crisis in 2023. This month, as CEO of Development Initiatives, I helped launch our latest Global Humanitarian Assistance Report. It shows that while a record $47 billion was provided in humanitarian funding in 2022, it wasn’t enough to keep pace with a record increase in the level of need. This is being driven by system-wide shocks which often have knock-on effects far beyond their initial impacts: the long tail of COVID-19, climate change and the war in Ukraine. With new crises emerging, such as the worsening conflict in Sudan, needs look set to rise yet again in 2023.

A third more people were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, with most facing long-term crisis. Source: Development Initiatives.
A third more people were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, with most facing long-term crisis. Image: Development Initiatives

Humanitarian crises can entrench existing inequalities and divert resources away from longer-term development efforts. Despite decades of progress, about 682 million people (8.5% of the world’s population) still live in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as living on less than $2.15 a day. Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is falling short, as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (and co-chair of the Tianjin meeting) has highlighted.

The number of people living in extreme poverty has more than halved since 1990, but 8.5% of the world’s population is still living below the $2.15 poverty line. Source: Development Initiatives based on World Bank PIP, Mahler et al. 2022, UN World Population Prospects and IMF World Economic Outlook. Forecasts begin in 2020.
The number of people living in extreme poverty has more than halved since 1990, but 8.5% of the world’s population is still living below the $2.15 poverty line. Image: Development Initiatives based on World Bank PIP, Mahler et al. 2022, UN World Population Prospects and IMF World Economic Outlook. Forecasts begin in 2020.

While entrepreneurs know that data is critical for business success, in humanitarian crises it can be a matter of life and death. When floods left nearly a third of Pakistan under water in 2022, urgent questions were raised about whether systems designed to reduce risk and prepare for such emergencies had been robust enough; systems that can only be as good as the data they rely on.

The problem is that often, particularly in middle and low-income countries, even the most basic data is lacking. According to the World Health Organization, every year tens of millions of births, and two-thirds of deaths, go unregistered. In Africa, data on cause of death is largely unavailable. Basic foundational registers of populations and businesses are vital for creating the formal economies required for growth. Without such data, can a country really develop at all?

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How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

This isn’t just an issue at the national level. To fully understand the challenges people face, we need a nuanced picture of how many factors, such as lack of access to healthcare, education or jobs, may intersect to hold them back. Here again, current data systems are not fit for purpose. For example, when it comes to gender, household surveys used to measure population statistics often mask inequalities within households, some even excluding women they define as being not of reproductive age.

These issues are both reflected in, and partly a consequence of, frameworks developed to gather data at the global level. Efforts to measure progress towards the SDGs include 231 unique indicators, a number that some argued from the start was bound to be unmanageable, and which many countries still lack sufficient data to report against.

At the same time, lack of coordination among donors and low investment in national data ecosystems creates “data disharmony”, resulting in poor infrastructure that does not serve national development priorities. That’s why it’s so important to work at the global, national and sub-national levels, themes which we raised at the World Data Forum in Hangzhou in April.

Above all, the climate crisis poses the biggest single threat to the global promise to end extreme poverty and leave no one behind, but data on how much climate finance is actually being spent, and how it should be counted, is confusing at best and misleading at worst. This undermines accountability for pledges by the wealthiest countries and stokes anger among those currently worst impacted by climate change who see promises repeatedly broken.

Value of Japan’s climate finance loans, different measurement choices. Source: UNFCCC, CRS and OECD DDRs.
Value of Japan’s climate finance loans, different measurement choices. Image: UNFCCC, CRS and OECD DDRs.

I’ve said before that we can change course, but only if we are informed by data we can trust. This must include investing in nationally owned data systems that are sustainable, inclusive, and tailored to local needs. Since I wrote those words ahead of January’s Davos meeting, there have been some encouraging signs. President Narendra Modi has stated that data for development will be a key theme under India’s G20 presidency.

At the UN World Data Forum, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged leaders to see data as the “bedrock of a sustainable future,” an issue which I will be raising at the SDG Summit in September. To some extent, the explosion of interest in AI has focused minds on addressing global inequality, and ensuring that countries in the Global South with less robust data ecosystems are able to leverage the considerable potential benefits, as well as manage the potential harms.

Today’s global challenges require a paradigm shift in leadership. While we live in uncertain times, one thing is clear: data is too often part of the problem. We must make it part of the solution.

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