Data, statistics and decision-making for sustainable development

June, 2021

Margarita Vaca
Researcher, Data for Sustainable Development Unit

Statistical thinking is applied on a daily basis by all people, actors or sectors, when making evidenced-based decisions or decisions based on experiences we have previously gathered on similar situations that allow us to predict, to a certain extent, what the consequences of our actions will be: From avoiding taking public transportation at high traffic hours to the economic, social and political planning and development of any territory.

The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have highlighted the need for timely, updated and quality data and statistics that account for the needs, priorities and challenges of communities, and that allow us to know where we are and how far we are from achieving the goals proposed in this Agenda.

What are data and statistics, and what are they for?

Data are conceived as a fragment of a measurement, description or word that as a whole can generate information, while statistics are the result of classifying and analyzing a set of data associated (Sosa, 2014) to facts that have one or more common characteristics that lead to conclusions according to a specific context.

Undoubtedly, data are the starting point to better understand human behaviour or social phenomena. However, data alone becomes uninteresting. Therefore, they must be transformed into statistics that facilitate a deep understanding of the panorama or scenario to be evaluated.

Statistics allow us to better understand a society and infer its quality of life, past and future potential (See Statistics: the power of data to change lives). For example, knowledge of the historical unemployment rate of a city provides inputs to identify how weak or robust its labor market is and the competent institutions around it, as well as to deduce the living conditions of its inhabitants. In this way, statistics make it possible to quantify reality and provide inputs for decision-makers to create effective strategies or projects, with informed knowledge, to counteract negative statistics or keep them, in case they are favorable, for the social dynamics of the population.

Statistics for sustainable development and the SDGs

Statistics are a tool to make visible the vulnerabilities and inequalities that limit both the human and economic development of the population, which imply setbacks in the achievement of the SDGs.

The Sustainable Development Agenda demands to have quality standards in the production of data, which allows to obtain reliable, comparable and pertinent statistics to understand the particularities of each country and its territories, as well as to monitor the progress in each of the SDGs and identify the best strategies to respond to the challenges that arise.

Following the theme of 'leaving no one behind', one of the principles of the 2030 Agenda, statistics must be disaggregated to the highest possible degree that reflects local realities and allows decision makers to formulate public policies in accordance with the characteristics and the social, economic and political context.

Likewise, statistics are an instrument for citizens to empower themselves and support their decisions. Therefore, they must be easily accessible and understandable (see the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics). This strengthens the trust of users in statistical institutions to create cooperative partnerships for sustainable development.

Statistics also help us answer questions about high-impact situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the analysis of 72 series of statistics of the 17 SDGs indicators for Latin America and the Caribbean, the health crisis has put the fulfillment of the SDG targets at risk, which has resulted in the following scenario (ECLAC, 2020):

→ 4 of the 74 indicators reached the goal

→ 15 likely to reach goal based on current trend

→ 8 need more public policy interventions to reach the goal

→ 13 require strong public policy intervention to achieve the goal

→ 27 are stagnant with respect to the goal

→ 5 are backward from the goal

Finally, statistics are inputs to create projections and possible scenarios of a situation, in order to guide the decisions of all actors, especially the government sector. For example, in different countries, measures to restrict mobility and isolation exacerbated social problems such as poverty.

In Colombia, in 2020, an increase in the poverty rate of 10.4 percentage points was estimated with respect to 2019 (35.7%). However, thanks to the analysis of these statistics and the implementation of both ordinary and extraordinary social programs, the percentage was 42.5%, that is, 3.6 percentage points less than expected (DANE, 2021), avoiding that 1,7 million people would have reached poverty.

Data and statistics reflect the lessons learned from the past, the good practices of the present and the challenges of the future, allowing us to draw a roadmap for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals justified and centered on people.