On Friday, 6 October, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) organised a webinar about African data progress. It involved assessing the main challenges around data on the continent and how these affect the achievement of Agenda 2063 goals and the SDGs. The webinar also discussed the key priorities required to improve data progress for development in Africa. The webinar was hosted by Tracy Kituyi, a Research Assistant at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF). She was joined by Mpilo Shabangu, Data Analyst for the City of Ekurhuleni Government Municipality; Tao Platt, Senior Associate at Genesis Analytics; and Abiy Goshu Shimelis, Project Communication Consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
Tracy Kituyi set the stage by emphasising the crucial role of comprehensive data coverage in Africa's journey towards achieving the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union's Agenda 2063. Unfortunately, Africa still lacks reliable, up-to-date, and continuous vital statistics. Shockingly, some African nations have yet to conduct a census since before 2010, with Somalia's last census dating back to 1987.
Data Gaps and Challenges:
The disparities extend to SDG indicators, especially secondary school enrolment and completion. Of the three SDGs focused on climate change, only one, Goal 15 (Life on Land), boasts official data for more than 33 African countries. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) for 2022 paints a similar picture, revealing alarming data gaps in essential sectors such as health, mental health, rural development, and climate change resilience.
External Shocks and Data Progress:
The impact of external shocks, notably the COVID-19 pandemic, on data progress in Africa was a key point of discussion. Abiy pointed out that COVID-19 accelerated the transition to a digitalised world. However, it occurred amidst existing barriers like infrastructure deficits and limited access to electricity. Affordability remains a significant challenge, with many Africans spending three times the global average on data and cell phone expenses, constituting a substantial portion of their income.
COVID-19 was one of the external shocks that transitioned us or kind of nudged us into this digitalised world. However, the conditions and situations in which this accelerated transition had to take place was already amidst pre-existing barriers such as infrastructure deficits, data regulation gaps, high cost of internet data, digital gender divides and skills gaps. These need to be addressed to achieve meaningful connectivity that allows citizens to contribute and access data for development.
~ Abiy Goshu Shimelis
The Significance of Data:
During the webinar, our experts engaged in a spirited discussion about the critical importance of data. Tao stressed that data is not just information; it is the bedrock upon which policies, investments, and project evaluations rest. It informs governments and the private sector alike, ensuring the efficient allocation of resources and the continuous improvement of initiatives. Mpilo emphasised that data has become a powerful tool for advocacy, giving a voice to marginalised communities and influencing decisions that shape their lives. Abiy highlighted a global shift towards data for development, emphasising the need for more representative and public-oriented data as a public good that speaks to the lived realities of communities, ideally in real time.
Building Inclusive Futures:
One of the central themes of the webinar was the necessity of robust data governance frameworks. Tao underscored the importance of ensuring inclusivity in data collection and utilisation. The critical question is who collects and uses data and who benefits from it. Strong data governance builds trust and fosters responsible data handling, which is essential for the success of SDGs and Agenda 2063.
Data is just not only here to give us numbers; it is really becoming an important tool and role player in determining the future of many people on this continent.
~ Mpilo Shabangu
I think step one is being included in the data, and step two is making sure there is a benefit of being included.
~ Tao Platt
Empowering Citizens and Civil Society:
Discussing citizen and civil society organisations' access to data for holding governments accountable, Mpilo highlighted a critical issue. She noted that many data sets lack intersectionality, often neglecting issues related to class, race, and gender. Citizens often need access to comprehensive data, hindering effective engagement. Governments, too, often require more resources to gather the necessary data, perpetuating a cycle of unaddressed problems.
What I am most hopeful and optimistic about is that there is a shift in understanding at least globally that data coming from very commercial and market-driven data. Now we are talking about data as a public common good for human development and how it can be applied in social innovation.
~ Abiy Goshu Shimelis
He further highlighted the importance of data as a public common good beyond its commercialisation in the marketing world. Abiy argues that, inherently there should have been less (if not zero) rivalry in the consumption of data for human development as data can be used infinitely without necessarily impacting the ability of another person to use that same data as a public good.
'Imagine the level of shocking accuracy of how Facebook recommends you to a new friend or how LinkedIn suggests a new connection. Now imagine taking that level of precision to real-world human deployment needs', says Abiy, mentioning applications of data for development insights like forecasting emerging skills gaps in a given sector or predicting where the next climate-induced migration could likely happen and what vital resources relief workers need for immediate deployment.
In conclusion, the webinar illuminated the pressing need for comprehensive and inclusive data progress in Africa. Bridging these data gaps will accelerate progress towards SDGs and Agenda 2063, empower marginalised communities, and ensure more resilient responses to future challenges like the ongoing digital transformation and external shocks. Africa's future lies in the power of data progress to guide the continent towards a brighter, more inclusive future.