In a world increasingly driven by information, the role of ‘data’ and ‘statistics’ is guiding decisions, including on population and sustainable development. In Asia and the Pacific, home to 60 per cent of the global population, data are an important foundation of informed policymaking. But does data drive policy development by shedding light on where disparities exist or where progress is slow? Or does a focus on data drive us to prioritize only those issues that can be measured and quantified? And is it also important to understand that statistical data, even if they are of the highest quality, cannot aim at revealing an absolute truth, as their construction relies on definitions and conventions that can never be fully neutral?
Landscape of data availability
In the Decade of Action to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries are strengthening their efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda. At the midpoint toward 2030, the region is alarmingly behind, having achieved only 14.4 per cent of the progress required since 2016 to achieve the SDGs, a contrast to the expected 50 per cent benchmark. And, despite much progress, data availability in Asia and the Pacific is uneven. Certain SDGs, such as Goal 5 (gender equality), Goal 13 (climate action), Goal 14 (life below water), and Goal 16 (peace and justice), have significant data gaps. Such gaps will hinder interventions and tracking progress, and signal where more investment in data availability is urgently needed.
Progress and innovations
Despite challenges, advancements in national statistical systems are evident. Most countries conducted population and housing censuses over the last 10 years. As of 2022, 86 per cent of ESCAP member Statess and associate members formulated National Statistical Plans, paving the way for informed policymaking.
Demographic and Health Surveys and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys have been widely deployed across the region. Harnessing administrative data, particularly through strengthened Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems, has become very important. Additionally, the rise of big data and geolocation technologies may offer a nuanced understanding of complex socio-economic dynamics. And through the potential of utilizing real-time information, Governments can gain timely insights, improve service delivery, and ultimately enhance the living conditions of the population. Examples of data innovation include the adoption of Computer Assisted Personal Interview (CAPI) systems in countries like Bangladesh and Kiribati, or the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for georeferenced data collection in Mongolia.
Navigating the ethical dimension
With advanced data collection, ethical considerations take center stage. The challenge lies in finding a balance between comprehensive data collection and preserving privacy. Data relevance and use are also important. Data should not be collected unless the need for it is clear, and collected data must be analyzed, the statistics produced made widely available, and effectively used. This calls for strong national systems that follow the ten fundamental principles of official statistics, as well as government officials, civil society and development practitioners who are data literate and equipped to use data effectively.
Recommendations for the road ahead
While data serve as a compass directing sustainable development efforts, they also inherently influence the path we chart, sometimes limiting our course to what is quantifiable. This requires a balanced and holistic approach that values both statistical trends and the qualitative nuances of human experience. The path towards sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region must be informed by robust, comprehensive and ethical data collection, analysis and dissemination. Recommendations include:
- Prioritize disaggregated data: The availability of disaggregated data, based on sex, age, disability and other socioeconomic criteria, is crucial but lacking in the regional SDG database. Such data not only facilitate the tracking of SDG progress for populations in vulnerable situations, but also enable policymakers to craft targeted interventions, fostering a nuanced understanding of regional variations.
- Focus data priorities on SDG indicators: It does not only support progress tracking towards global commitments but will provide a strong minimum set of data. By doing so, statistical systems will be strengthened and different statistics and indicators will be generated, extending the impact and understanding well beyond the SDGs themselves.
- Innovation in data practices: Embracing modern data collection methodologies, once they have been quality assured, opens new frontiers for insights, bypassing traditional constraints.
- Strengthen statistical capacities: This includes data collection and analysis to management and dissemination, ensuring alignment with international standards.
The Seventh Asian and Pacific Population Conference, jointly organized by ESCAP and UNFPA in Bangkok on 15-17 November 2023, will provide opportunities for policymakers, civil society and other stakeholders to discuss key population and development issues and share insights. The meeting outcome will provide the regional input to the global review of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development at the 57th session of the Commission on Population and Development in 2024.