Civil society, data and SDG monitoring: What we’ve learned so far and our plans for taking things forward

By Jack Cornforth

This year CIVICUS, through its DataShift initiative, has been seeking to incubate a conversation on how we in civil society can collaborate to use our data to monitor the new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To start with, this involved some initial research into the different types of data civil society is generating and how it is being used, along with speaking to a range of civil society actors to hear their thoughts on how we could coordinate these efforts. Given that there was a great deal of appetite to continue these initial conversations and build on what we had learned, DataShift held an open event – ‘Monitoring for the People by the People’ – in the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York this September to bring people together to try and refine some of these early proposals and think practically about translating them into action.

The big picture

One thing we have heard repeatedly is that civil society and citizen-generated data isn’t just needed to monitor the SDGs, it’s also going to be critical for implementing them. If national implementation plans are going to be effective at addressing priority areas, they need to be rooted in sound baseline data. And in most places, this data will be more detailed and more accurate if it comes from a variety of sources – including civil society.

And once implementation efforts have got going, civil society and citizen-generated data will be key to establishing whether the more transformational elements of the 2030 Agenda are becoming a reality, such as ‘leaving no one behind’ and achieving gender equality. These aren’t things that national statistics offices can adequately measure on their own, so they will need to work with civil society and other actors to get a more accurate picture of progress.

Participants at our New York event emphasised that citizen-generated and other sources of ‘non-official’ data can have a range of functions when it comes to measuring SDG progress. Most critically, it can complement official sources of data to give a more comprehensive picture of progress.  But in some instances, it will be essential for scrutinising questionable government data and challenging inadequate implementation. This means that we don’t have to choose between whether civil society and citizen-generated data should be integrated into official reporting or if civil society should move forward with some form of shadow reporting. We think we need both  Different circumstances will require different approaches – but we do not need to be limited by the mechanisms and indicators of UN’s follow-up and review process and government-led monitoring efforts.

Taking this forward

At our event in New York many agreed that we should set the bar high and ultimately aim for some sort of global mechanism which pulls together civil society and citizen-generated data on all SDGs from a wide range of organisations and initiatives. At the other end of the spectrum are those that think we need to first start small and prove the concept in order to build momentum and then scale up.  What is clear is that we need to be working at each of the national, regional and global levels to monitor SDG progress – and to figure out how these levels can connect.

To take this work forward, in early 2016 CIVICUS, through the DataShift, will be launching some exciting activities:

  • An initiative to examine, in a concrete way, how citizen-generated data can complement official sources of data to measure progress on SDG 5 (gender equality) in Kenya and Tanzania.  Through this work, we will engage a range of stakeholders in East Africa on the challenges and opportunities associated with using multiple sources of data to monitor and drive SDG progress.  We also hope that we can build a methodology that could be applied to other SDGs in these countries and beyond.

  • In consultation with key civil society, data and tech partners and collaborators, developing a proof of concept for an online platform for harnessing civil society and citizen-generated data from diverse organisations and locations to monitor SDG progress globally and nationally.

  • Convening of a working group on monitoring and accountability as part of a broader global civil society initiative to ensure delivery and accountability on the commitments governments have made in 2015 when adopting the SDGs and Paris Climate Change Agreement.

We will be sure to link our work with the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, of which CIVICUS is an anchor partner.  We also look forward to working witha number of other networks and platforms already doing excellent work on this agenda, such as the Transparency, Accountability and Participation (TAP) network and the Open Institute, who recently launched their  SDG Tracker.

There is much important work to be done, and we look forward to working with many of you to take things forward in 2016!

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