As U.N. member countries continue discussions regarding new sustainable development goals, targets and indicators to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals, it is helpful to remember the story of former World Bank President Robert McNamara’s quest for poverty data.
The story goes that in the late 1970s, while reading the first U.N. World Development Report, McNamara was astonished to discover that there was poverty data for only a handful of countries.
His response changed history.
He launched a global effort to collect that data through household surveys. Now such data is routinely available, and helps inform local, national and global efforts to address poverty and poor nutrition. It helped McNamara in his efforts to refocus the bank’s work on addressing poverty as well.
As member states, global thought leaders and civil society organizations work out a new framework for sustainable development goals post-2015, some have argued that the new indicators to measure our progress toward these new goals and targets should draw on well-established sources of public and private data.
This view, while understandable in its quest for efficiency, is shortsighted and undermined by McNamara’s story, which demonstrates two important points: Visionary leaders can develop new ways to efficiently collect effective and important data, and good data is the first step toward properly understanding and addressing a problem.
Consider the issue of strengthening land rights for women and men. The importance of land rights for women and men is rightly called out in the new draft sustainable development goals relating to ending poverty, achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls, increasing food security, and promoting sustainable agriculture. Many believe that improving land rights is also a foundation for the goal related to making cities and human settlements inclusive, resilient and sustainable.
In the past, land rights were often overlooked by the development community, in large part because they are an invisible infrastructure that is challenging to measure. Fortunately this is changing. While at present there is no universal agreement on what data to collect or how this can be accomplished, there are encouraging recent efforts within the land sector where multiple stakeholders have come together to propose meaningful and feasible indicators for women and men’s land rights that can inform global and national agendas, policies and initiatives.
Moreover, McNamara’s legacy demonstrates that data gaps, even big ones, should not be an obstacle to putting land rights at the forefront of our development agenda. In the 1970s, the World Bank recognized that addressing poverty was central to its efforts and that to do so better data is needed. The bank then, in a very short span of time, launched a successful effort to collect and disseminate that data.
The development of the post-2015 framework provides a historic opportunity to push the data and evidence base forward. So, let’s not allow the set of readily available data control and frame our global development priorities.
There are two specific meaningful and feasible indicators that have been proposed: the percent of women and the percent of men who have documented evidence of secure land rights, and the percent of women and percent of men who perceive that their land rights are secure.
These are meaningful and feasible indicators that should be considered.
Sex-disaggregated data is more labor-intensive. But we know that it is essential. In the case of secure rights to land, measuring progress at a household level assumes all in the household have benefited equally and have been empowered equally. We know that secure land rights for a man in a given household do not necessarily translate to secure land rights for women in the same household.
And a wealth of research makes clear that women’s land rights in particular have a ripple effect that can leverage our progress on a number of critical development goals, including child nutrition, poverty alleviation, and women’s social and economic empowerment.
Sex-disaggregated data on land rights will prove critical to measuring progress and go a long way toward informing national agricultural development priorities, poverty alleviation strategies, food security initiatives, women’s economic empowerment efforts and a host of other critical endeavors.
As McNamara’s experience demonstrates, we should not limit our goals based on existing data.
Until relatively recently, the data on poverty was severely limited. Today we have good data on poverty and know the world has made considerable progress in its poverty alleviation efforts.
We can and must do the same with regard to women and men’s rights to land.