A Global Partnership Yields Results: Local Change and Official Recognition for Civil Society Data

The latest UN World Data Forum, held in October 2021 in Bern, Switzerland, ended with the adoption of the Bern Data Compact for the Decade of Action on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which recognises civil society data as part of the entire data ecosystem necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Bern Data Compact represents a major milestone towards the recognition of community-driven data in official processes, and its role in filling vital information gaps for sustainable development. The Leave No One Behind (LNOB) Partnership, a growing international civil society data collaboration, had made a convincing case for inclusive SDG data at the Bern Conference.

The LNOB Partnership is made up of more than 80 global and national members, including community-based organisations, NGOs and their networks in seven countries. Peter Koblowsky, Senior Partnership Manager at the International Civil Society Centre, which serves as the global secretariat for the LNOB Partnership, summed up the sentiments of partners: “For civil society, the Bern Data Compact represents a positive step forward. Civil society data is now being openly encouraged, especially data that supports the ‘leave no one behind’ SDG pledge.”

Achieving official recognition of citizen-generated data as a crucial tool to ensure no one is left behind in fulfilling each SDG has been a key goal of the LNOB Partnership since its founding in 2017. But that work didn’t start nor end at the 2021 World Data Forum.

Listening to Marginalised Groups

In a series of articles covering national LNOB coalitions in Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Nepal, the LNOB Partnership has suggested local solutions to deal with the intersecting drivers of poverty, social exclusion and marginalisation, all of which have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. These solutions could not have been identified without listening to marginalised people, including sex workers, young people, hard-to-reach ethnic minorities, Dalits, single women, persons with disabilities, street-hawkers, street dwellers, and river people – those who are most likely to be left behind as others benefit from national and global SDG processes.

To conduct this listening process effectively, the LNOB coalitions trained local facilitators to conduct focus group discussions, for example on the quality of public services for marginalised groups, and to use participatory tools such as community score cards to harness data. These facilitators have become changemakers and SDG champions in their communities. The community-driven and citizen-generated data the facilitators helped to generate provides evidence to help marginalised people demand accountability from local and national authorities.

Reaching a Global Policy Audience

In addition to local and national policymakers – whose decisions directly affect the daily lives of the most marginalized people in their countries – the LNOB Partnership has also worked to reach global policymakers and the broad set of stakeholders that monitors their SDG efforts. Civil society data was used to create the ‘Unequal Pandemic’ report, launched on the sidelines of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July 2021.

“The report gives access to real-time data on how the pandemic has become a phenomenal obstacle to realising the SDGs”, said Koblowsky.

But more important, the report demonstrates how civil society can generate and use alternative data to appeal for humanitarian interventions, including demanding action to achieve universal access to Covid-19 vaccinations, sanitisers and masks.

The Partnership also engages the global community of statisticians to discuss inclusion of community-driven data, including during a meeting of the UN’s Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), in November 2021, and more recently at the 53rd session of the UN Statistical Commission in February 2022.

Growing Government Acceptance

As the LNOB Partnership engages in global data platforms, it is making progress in facilitating the generation of community-driven data to complement official sources. For example:

  • In Kenya, the LNOB Coalition used findings from its recent survey on social services—which revealed how data gaps contribute to poor targeting of services for people with disabilities—to open a dialogue with national statistical authorities. Coalition member George Awalla reports that the government is open to using non-official sources in national data systems, and Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics is “already realigning its data systems to include community-generated data.”
  • In Nepal, the LNOB Coalition facilitated evidence-based community events between marginalised groups and local government authorities in the Karnali province. The events used community-generated data to develop local action plans and development indicators. These afford a local perspective to the broad SDG priorities set by the National Planning Commission in Nepal.
  • In Bangladesh, the LNOB Coalition used the scorecard survey approach to assess and reveal food, cash and health challenges affecting marginalised groups in the wake of COVID-19. Evidence from the survey has been useful in fostering a growing consensus for the acceleration of social assistance programmes critical to the pandemic response. Community-generated data is particularly bringing new insights on closing knowledge gaps related to SDG target 3.8 on achieving universal health coverage by 2030.
  • In India, the LNOB Coalition conducted a flagship “100 Hotspots” project, which the United Nations has highlighted as an SDG Good Practice. This recognition demonstrates huge steps in the right direction to position civil society data as an integral part of the data system needed to achieve the SDG promise to leave no one behind.

These achievements by the LNOB Coalitions in several countries represent important progress. But there is an urgent need to consolidate this progress. To achieve this, the LNOB Partnership is entering a new stage: a technical collaboration with the UN Statistics Division to enhance the capacities of local civil society to produce local data that is complementary to official statistical data.

The collaboration will develop data toolkits to strengthen the role of local civil society and marginalised groups in SDG monitoring and local policy action – just the kind of work that has been piloted in the LNOB Partnership’s original five action countries of Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal and Vietnam, and is currently expanding to our two new action countries – Denmark and Malawi. The Partnership’s ambition is to implement this process simultaneously in multiple countries, bringing civil society and the statistical community together and drawing comparable conclusions from each country. In the long run, the process should foster the creation of global guidelines for civil society data.

“Our aim is to build trust across key sectors, giving rise to the creation of common rules for data production and use,” said Koblowsky. “We expect this effort to empower more communities and voice their needs and rights with their local decision makers.”

This article is written by Davie Malungisa, consultant to the Leave No One Behind Partnership. Malungisa is a lawyer based in Johannesburg, and formerly an advisor to Amnesty International and Oxfam America. The article is published simultaneously on voicescount.org and the Global SDG Knowledge Hub of IISD.