Closing Data Gaps, Sharing New Technologies Will Bolster 2030 Agenda Gains, Speakers, Experts Tell Population and Development Commission

| April 13, 2016

Closing data gaps and using new technologies were among the necessary steps to ensuring the successful achievement of all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals, speakers said today as the Commission on Population and Development continued its general debate and held an interactive discussion with statistics experts.

Many delegates agreed that collecting reliable information was essential to informing responsive policies that targeted communities most in need and to fulfil the goals set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development that was adopted in Cairo in 1994.  Others stressed the importance of carefully considering governance, the protection of privacy, transparency and rights as Governments adopted data collection approaches.

Yet, accessing the technology and tools needed to collect reliable data was an obstacle for many countries, speakers said.  Several delegates highlighted a persistent digital gap, with Swaziland’s representative describing his country’s current challenge in that regard.  While his Government had developed a national database, known as Swazi-Info, to harness the power of advanced information technologies to compile and disseminate development indicators, resource constraints had led to shortcomings, including the limited analysis of the collected data.

Echoing that sentiment, Sierra Leone’s delegate said her country, having experienced two decades of humanitarian crises, now needed every available form of assistance in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  Indeed, concerted efforts must aim at filling the existing gaps, some delegates said.  Turkey’s representative said scientific gaps between countries regarding survey methodologies and data sharing must also be narrowed for the effective implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action. 

Moreover, some speakers emphasized, accurate, disaggregated data was needed as a mechanism to measure benchmark achievements on the road towards achieving targets set in both the Cairo Programme of Action and the 2030 Agenda.  Sri Lanka’s representative said that demographic data would be at the heart of the efficient monitoring and evaluation of the 2030 Agenda and its goals and targets.  He recalled that, in 2012, when Sri Lanka had held its first national census in 31 years, the collected information had produced vital socioeconomic data.  Looking ahead, he said that as new data sources were becoming increasingly available, they could complement traditional methods.

Elaborating on that theme, Andrew Tatem, a professor at the University of Southampton, delivered a keynote address on the integration of traditional and new data sources and technologies.  While traditional data sets constituted the bedrock of information collection, he said, new sources such as geo-located household surveys, satellite and mobile phone data provided fresh opportunities.

Even though geo-located household surveys provided detailed population data in the absence of recent census figures, he said, satellite, mobile phone and geographical information system (GIS) data were sources for information on human population distribution, mobility, social networks and consumption.  When delegates asked for a price for some of those new technologies, Mr. Tatem explained that while costs for satellite data were difficult to assess, in some cases, imagery was being made available for free or at a greatly reduced fees.

Wasmália Bivar, of Brazil, Chair of the forty-seventh session of the United Nations Statistical Commission, said some States needed to bolster their data collection capabilities.  Via videoconference, Ms. Bivar told delegates that because global indicators for development agendas were not necessarily applicable in all contexts, it was crucial to strengthen national statistical capacities and generate reliable, accurate and regular statistics.  Moving forward, she said, developing a robust and high-quality indicator framework was a technical process that would need to continue and evolve over time.

Also participating in today’s debate were ministers, high-level officials and representatives of Belarus, Lebanon, Canada, Colombia, Madagascar, Maldives, Iran (also on behalf of the Friends of the Family), Botswana, Israel, Togo, Denmark and Cabo Verde.

The Commission will meet again at 10 a.m. tomorrow to continue its work.

General Debate

VALENTIN RYBAKOV, Deputy Minister of Vulnerable Populations of Belarus, reiterating his country’s support for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, warned against the trend of undertaking mainstream approaches when using demographic data.  While such approaches were suitable for countries with large numbers of youth, it was not appropriate for other countries with significant population declines.  In addressing the latter situation, the Government continued to work tirelessly to reverse population decline and had introduced relevant health programmes.  In addition, his country had improved social policies to support families.  Clubs and societies at the local and national level had provided training courses to families with a view to protect harmonious family relations and settle disputes.

HASSAN ABBAS (Lebanon) reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the full implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development that was adopted in Cairo in 1994.  For its part, Lebanon had adopted legislation that had provided quality sexual and reproductive health care and family planning, supported efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, incorporated population concerns into school curricula and addressed the needs of older persons and those living with disabilities.  In the face of alarming levels of forced displacement in the Middle East stemming from the Syrian crisis, Lebanon was hosting more than 1.2 million refugees.  As a result, host communities were experiencing immense social, demographic, environmental and economic pressure.  To ensure the continued implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action in Lebanon, the country’s needs included improved coherence and coordination between United Nations agencies and the provision of sufficient and predictable long-term development assistance to host communities, he concluded.

Ms. WISEMAN (Canada) emphasized the need to focus on the human rights of women and girls, children and adolescents in fulfilling the 2030 Agenda and the Cairo Programme of Action.  In March, Canada announced new funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that would widen access to contraceptives and medicine for maternal health.  Child, early and forced marriage was a complex issue that called for the engagement of all sectors of society, better data and the inclusion of all voices.  Significant progress had been made on a resolution to make the Commission’s work more effective and Canada would join its international partners in reaching out to the poorest and most vulnerable.

AMRITH ROHAN PERERA (Sri Lanka) said the successful implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals depended on reliable data that accurately described the socioeconomic situation on the ground.  Demographic data would be at the heart of the efficient monitoring and evaluation of the development agenda.  Sri Lanka’s national census for 2012, the first such survey that had been conducted in 31 years, had produced vital socioeconomic data.  Sri Lanka was experiencing a demographic dividend, whereby the majority of the population was working age.  New data sources were becoming increasingly available, which could complement traditional methods.  Sri Lanka would continue to explore the possibility of utilizing multiple data sources at different locations and over various periods of time.  Equally important was the need to carefully consider other aspects of data collection, including governance, the protection of privacy, transparency and data rights.

CARLOS ARTURO MORALES LÓPEZ (Colombia) said the 2030 Agenda not only complemented the Cairo Programme of Action, but the two were mutually reinforcing.  As such, a renewed focus must be placed on the achievement of commitments made in 1994.  That would be the best contribution towards implementing and following up on the 2030 Agenda process.  Among the advances made since the last Commission session, Colombia’s constitutional court had legalized same-sex marriage, making it the twenty-sixth country in the world that had fully recognized all forms of the family without discrimination.  Despite various national efforts, teenage pregnancy continued to be a challenge that needed to be addressed by providing young people with access to health services and to the labour market.  Colombia would conduct its next census later in 2016.  It had already conducted a national household survey on the workforce and a national survey on quality of life issues.

SIBONISO DOUGLAS MASILELA (Swaziland) said successful efforts towards reducing poverty and inequalities and attaining sustainable development depended on the collection of statistical data and information to inform responsive policies.  His Government had undertaken surveys and censuses to improve its demographic and socioeconomic evidence base.  Noting that the next census would be conducted in 2017, he said the quality of data had improved over time, but further improvements could be made, including with regard to the late release of results, which was a major challenge.  The Government had developed a national database, known as Swazi-Info, which had harnessed the power of advanced information technology to compile and disseminate development indicators.  However, challenges, such as limited analysis of data collected, were largely due to resource constraints.  In that vein, he said, the global community needed to exchange knowledge and information to improve the availability, quality and timeliness of demographic and socioeconomic data.

MAMY RATOLOJANAHARY (Madagascar) stressed the importance of data in development.  To better follow up on Africa’s Agenda 2063, he underlined the need to collect high-quality statistical data through the use of available technology.  For its part, the Government was undertaking concrete measures to address a range of challenges.  In working on those initiatives, the Government was focused on meeting the needs and aspirations of citizens.  Despite its efforts, Madagascar had continued to suffer from the digital gap in terms of technology and available tools.  Turning to the 2030 Agenda, he said each nation had a responsibility to assure its success in its implementation and Madagascar, in that regard, was taking all the necessary steps to move forward towards achieving development goals.

HELEN KUYEMBEH (Sierra Leone) described how, working in partnership with UNFPA, her country had made a good start in generating baseline data from the 2013 demographic and health survey and the 2015 population and housing census.  A revised national population policy addressed such issues as youth employment and gender inequalities.  Key concerns included reducing maternal and infant mortality, lifting young people out of the poverty trap and addressing a high rate of teenage pregnancy, she said.  Having been the victim of humanitarian crises over two decades, Sierra Leone needed all available development assistance in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, she concluded.

AHMED SAREER (Maldives) said that in recent years, infant mortality rates had decreased and life expectancy had increased remarkably in his country.  Since the Cairo Programme of Action was adopted, national policies had been strengthened and better opportunities had been provided to women and youth.  However, there was still a much to be done to fully achieve all of the targets.  Calling the 2030 Agenda a once-in-a-generation opportunity, he stressed the need for Member States to join together and put an end to poverty.  On the theme of the Commission’s current session, he underscored that the international community must be able to identify the most vulnerable people in order to address their needs.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO (Iran), speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends of the Family, said the family was the central player when it came to strengthening the demographic evidence base for the 2030 Agenda.  The successful implementation of both the development agenda and the Cairo Programme of Action depended on policies that promoted the role and stance of the family in all societies.  A strengthened family institution would certainly contribute in the flourishing of people and the ultimate well-being of societies.  The family continued to be the basic and primary provider for each individual.

Speaking in his national capacity, he said that over 31 per cent of Iran’s population was between age 15 and 29.  That dynamic represented an opportunity for rapid economic growth.  The Government remained committed to intensifying its efforts to end poverty, inequalities and disparities within societies.  Iran had also improved the status of women in the family and society by promoting equal opportunities for education, ensuring their access to necessary health services and offering economic incentives to female-headed households.  Iran had a strong national network that provided quality maternal and reproductive health-care services, even to the most remote parts of the country.  Since 2014, the health sector had undergone significant reforms to achieve universal health-care coverage and improve citizen satisfaction with related services.

JOYCE MASSIE (Botswana) said her country’s development agenda in the post-2015 period was centred on its continued fight against poverty, promotion and protection of fundamental human rights, provision of sexual and reproductive health services, creation of employment and protection of the environment.  The challenge was the availability of sectoral and programme-focused data and statistics, which informed national planning processes.  Botswana conducted population and housing censuses every decade and periodic surveys to update information.  It had also introduced the National Monitoring and Evaluation System and a national strategy for the development of statistics.  There was an opportunity for the country to further improve data generation and innovative approaches to their use, including through computer-assisted personal interviewing for data collection and analysis, an approach that significantly reduced the time between data collection and the production of reports.

DAVID YITSHAK ROET (Israel) said the 2030 Agenda was a bold, people-centred commitment to end poverty, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, reduce inequalities and promote peaceful and inclusive societies.  As monitoring progress was crucial to guide future action, reliable and timely demographic data was necessary for planning and implementing policies and for tracking advances in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  A robust and comprehensive demographic evidence base must be used to identify and locate the most vulnerable people, as that was the only way to ensure no one was left behind.  For its part, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics had developed plans responsive to the needs and values of each community.  Further, his country had recently established a coordination unit of the National Statistical System in order to enhance the quality of statistics.

VICTORIA BADOHOUN-WOMITSO (Togo) said despite progress achieved since the adoption of the Cairo Programme of Action, most African countries continued to face development challenges that undermined efforts to find lasting and effective solutions to the issues facing people and societies.  Togo was committed to undertaking efficient actions to improve the well-being of its population, despite its modest economic potential.  Togo had achieved tangible results over the last decade with regard to maternal and adolescent health and had also made progress in combating HIV/AIDS, which stood at about 2.5 per cent nationally.  To strengthen the demographic evidence base and support post-2015 development, demographic trends must be taken into account.  In that regard, it was essential to collect reliable data.  Togo had conducted its fourth overall census in 2010, which would be updated by 2020.

IB PETERSEN (Denmark) said the Cairo Programme of Action went beyond the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda.  Women, men, adolescents and youth enjoyed the right to decide freely on matters related to their sexuality and reproductive health.  But, in many contexts, they did not.  It therefore remained crucial to review and follow up on the Cairo agenda.  With regard to strengthening the demographic evidence base, it was important to respect human rights when collecting data for monitoring progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

ÖZNUR ÇALIK, Member of Parliament of Turkey, reiterated her country’s support for the effective implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action, since it was the only international foundation for sustainable development for all.  For its effective implementation, scientific gaps between countries regarding survey methodologies and data sharing must be filled.  For its part, Turkey attached great importance to improving its population registration system, and the tenth National Development Plan aimed at monitoring up-to-date birth, death and immigration data.  Turning to recent statistics, she noted that the infant mortality rate had decreased from 31.3 per cent to 9.3 per cent.  As one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the “Istanbul Convention”, the Government had also created and implemented national action plans with a view to combating violence against women.

FERNANDO WAHNON FERREIRA (Cabo Verde), aligning himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China and the African Group, said the current session was timely and appropriate for the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  Prior to the adoption of Cairo Programme of Action, Cabo Verde had initiated an initiative targeting the protection of mothers and children.  In line with the Programme of Action, his country had a clear understanding that sexual and reproductive health and rights were vital for women’s empowerment, human capital and development.  Cabo Verde had legally recognized a woman’s right to freely decide on matters related to her sexuality and reproductive rights.  In addition, access to health-care services was guaranteed.  The Government had also undertaken various reforms with a view to overcoming challenges related to accountability, capacity-building and decision-making.  Despite efforts made, much more needed to be done to address data gaps and reinforce capacity-building of national statistical institutions.

Interactive Discussions

WASMÁLIA BIVAR (Brazil), Chair of the forty-seventh session of the United Nations Statistical Commission, then delivered a statement from Brazil via videoconference.  The Statistical Commission had agreed with the proposed global indicator framework containing 230 indicators for the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda.  It had, however, recognized that developing a robust and high-quality indicator framework was a technical process that would need to continue over time.  Emphasizing that the global indicators were not necessarily applicable in all national contexts, she said the Commission had stressed that the implementation of the indicator framework would present a challenge in almost all countries.  To address that, appropriate efforts to strengthen national statistical capacities would be needed.

She went on to highlight that population would be the denominator for many indicators.  The 2020 census round of population and housing censuses represented one of the critical components in the process of building national statistical capacities and generating reliable, accurate and regular statistics.  The 2020 World Population and Housing Census Programme had urged each country to conduct at least one population and housing census in the 2020 census decade.  In that regard, the Statistical Commission had already adopted and launched a full set of revised principles and recommendations for such censuses and had mandated the development of accompanying handbooks and manuals.

When the floor opened, the representative of Cuba asked about the role of population in relation to the indicators.

Ms. BIVAR said that disaggregated data would be crucial for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  That process had begun with a whole range of indicators, which had been reduced in order to add sufficient focus to the future development agenda.  An inter-agency group of experts had worked to evaluate the links between the targets of the 2030 Agenda and the indicators.  In its next step, the group would review all methodologies that had been proposed in relation to those indicators, while also continuously evaluating each country’s ability to use available data.

ANDREW TATEM, a professor at the University of Southampton, delivered a keynote address on the theme of “integration of traditional and new data sources and technologies:  from censuses to big data”.  Emphasizing that national census data continued to be the most important data source, he said overcoming the data challenge was possible through conducting geo-located household surveys and using satellite and geographical information system (GIS) data and mobile phone data.

Geo-located household surveys provided readily available data within countries, he said, offering an example.  In Nigeria, on the one hand, 53.1 per cent of women were literate and a survey had mapped the proportion of literate women across regions.  Satellite and GIS data, on the other hand, provided high resolution data such as human settlements.  On mobile phone data, he said that it mapped new forms of characteristics, such as mobility, social networks and consumption.

The use of all available data, he went on to say, was required with regard to measuring progress on the Sustainable Development Goals that were aimed at ensuring that a certain percentage of populations had access to specific services or resources.  Satellite and GIS data could map human population distribution patterns and could be used, for example, in identifying how many people were within the range of a health facility.  Such data also provided information about buildings, settlements and cities from satellite imagery.

During the ensuing interactive discussion, delegates posed a number of questions related to data uses and collection challenges.

The representative of Cuba asked how countries could complement traditional data sets and combine newer methods of collecting data with existing methodologies.

Mr. TATEM said that traditional data sets would continue to constitute the bedrock of all data collected.  Traditional data was important for providing context and understanding the biases that may be contained within newer data sets.

In response to a request from Germany’s representative to provide an example of how his research had contributed to policy changes, Mr. TATEM pointed to work that was being done in Namibia where data had been collected for malaria risk mapping.  As a result of that data, officials had changed the way that counter-measures, such as mosquito spraying, were conducted by prioritizing the movements of people, he said.

Following a query from the representative of the United States about the challenges in accessing mobile phone data, he said that it was indeed a difficult process, but that agreements had been reached with mobile phone companies whereby certain information could be accessed based on anonymity.

Mr. TATEM then addressed a question raised by Afghanistan’s representative, saying it was difficult to assess costs involved with collecting satellite data.  In some cases, he continued, satellite imagery was being made available for free or at a greatly reduced cost, but that varied from country to country.

Also participating in the discussion were the representatives of Guinea, Japan, Russian Federation and Togo.

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