Measuring human progress

01 January 2017
By Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The accomplishments of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era have been stunning: To take just one example, the number of children who die each year has gone down by almost half, from more than 12.4 million to 6.6 million. That doesn’t quite hit the two-thirds target included in MDG 4, but it’s a great thing for humanity.

With the MDGs set to expire in 2015, the development community is starting to consider the next set of global goals and how to build on the current progress. The Secretary-General of the United Nations convened a High Level Panel on the subject, and one of the priorities it highlighted is a ‘data revolution’. According to the panel, to accelerate the pace of improvements, development organizations and developing-country governments need access to more and better data.

Few people believe in the power of data as much as I do. In fact, I wrote the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter in 2012 about the importance of measurement. In my experience, the management slogan “What gets measured gets done” holds true. The mere act of tracking key indicators makes it much more likely that changes in those indicators will be positive. Second, analysing development statistics yields lessons that improve outcomes over time. For example, the recent proliferation of excellent community-based health systems in developing countries has a lot to do with the clear evidence that frontline workers get results.

Once there’s consensus on the importance of data and the need for a data revolution, the next step is more debate on the specific contents of that revolution.

One priority is to rationalize the ongoing data collection processes. Currently, the supply of data is extremely fragmented, so different players often count the same things multiple times in slightly different ways while neglecting to gather other useful statistics altogether. The answer is not to collect every conceivable piece of data on economic and human development, which would increase costs and lead to gridlock. We need a coordinating mechanism whereby the development community and the developing countries themselves agree on a limited list of indicators that are worth tracking carefully.

A second priority is investing in developing countries’ ability to collect data over the long term: in the end, development data is only valuable if used in country by policymakers. We should not launch a data revolution based on a huge infusion of money to gather a trove of data at a single point in time, as the next set of global goals takes effect. Instead, for a truly lasting revolution, we need to help countries hire and train more experts and invest in their own systems for tracking data that matter to them for years to come. Part of this will involve giving serious consideration to how digital technology can improve data collection in countries where current techniques are decades old. For example, using a global positioning system instead of a tape measure and a compass to estimate agricultural yields can speed up the work by more than a factor of 10.

A third priority is making sure that data on human development is widely available, informs public policy, and increases accountability. This means giving citizens, civil society, donors, entrepreneurs, and parliamentarians full access to government data, no matter what the data suggest. It also means making sure experts use the data that’s available to make better policy decisions.

The benefit of a data revolution is that it will have an impact on every single priority in global development and health. With better data, countries will get better at every single goal they set, whether it’s saving children’s lives, increasing agricultural yields, or empowering women. Ultimately, better data can mean a better life for billions of people.

This blog entry is a special contribution made to the 2014 Human Development Report “Sustaining Human progress Reducing Vulnerabilities and building resilience”