In the margins of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) 2020, under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) held a virtual side-event entitled “Bridging the data gap to monitor progress in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies at the time of COVID-19 – challenges and opportunities for partnerships” on Tuesday, 14 July, from 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm (New York EDT). The event was organized as part of the SDG16 Data Initiative, in collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Alliance for Reporting Progress on Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, and the Praia City Group on Governance Statistics.
This side-event focused on key issues of data collection to monitor progress of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a special focus on SDG 16, at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. The panelists provided a comprehensive breakdown of the numerous challenges that both governmental and independent statistical offices are facing during the crisis. The second aim of the meeting was to ponder possible solutions to the challenges of data gathering, analysis and management during the crisis, by creating an open discussion centered on experience-sharing among the different organizations involved in the meeting.
The Permanent Representative of International IDEA to the United Nations, Massimo Tommasoli, opened the meeting by asserting the importance of including COVID-19 in discussions around democratic governance, due to its repercussions on the political, social and economic spheres of national and international realities. Tommasoli stressed International IDEA’s engagement in the SDG16 Data Initiative, a partnership that monitors the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by combining official and non-official indicators that capture qualitative dimensions of SDG16 through an online database and an annual global report.
Laura Thornton, Director for Global Programme at International IDEA, and Elisenda Ballesté Buxó, Associate Programme Officer in IDEA's Democracy Assessment and Political Analysis (DAPA) Unit, highlighted the severity of the COVID-19’s impact on democratic practices around the globe. Ballesté Buxó underscored that the pandemic seems to have exacerbated pre-existing trends of democratic erosion and backsliding and argued that accurate data gathering is now more important than ever in order to monitor developments concerning democracy, peace and human rights. She noted that the newly developed Global Monitor of COVID-19´s Impact on Democracy and Human Rights, created by International IDEA and co-funded by the European Union, is a useful resource that showcases key trends, challenges and opportunities that will arise during the Coronavirus pandemic. Data report on such variables as concerns of abuses of emergency powers, obstructions to civil liberties and freedom of expression, mismanagement of basic welfare and restrictions to parliaments and elections. View Laura Thornton's full presentation.
The Coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability and Participation (TAP) Network for the SDG16 Data Initiative, John Romano, argued that good governance, especially if mobilized towards the creation of just, peaceful and inclusive societies (I.e. the areas covered by SDG16), is increasingly accepted as having a central role in supporting and strengthening democratic institutions. Romano stressed that independent and reliable data sources are essential to monitoring SDG16 and governance statistics, especially in the assessments on how to improve institutional capacity during and after the pandemic. Romano asserted that we first need to tackle serious issues of data collection during the pandemic, namely the logistical difficulties in conducting surveys, the shrinking of civic spaces and the attacks on the media.
The Coordinator of Secretariat for the Praia City Group on Governance Statistics, Malene Almeida, introduced the Praia City Group’s Handbook on Governance Statistics, an international standard for measuring, analyzing and reporting on governance indicators. She then presented ways in which National Statistical Offices (NSOs) adapted to the limitations of social distancing requirements by relying on remote technology and alternative sources of data. Almeida concluded by saying that the Praia City Group on Governance Statistics decided to support NSOs by producing a policy brief that will focus on the new arrangements needed at the time of COVID-19. Read Malene Almeida's speech.
Joel Martinez, Director of Engagement at the World Justice Project, firstly presented the work of his organization, a group involved in collecting independent data on the state of rule of law both at the national and international levels, which contributes to such global reports as the Rule of Law Index. Martinez made three recommendations for data collectors operating during the pandemic, supported by solid case studies:
- Making use of partnerships for data collection can facilitate the testing of new methodologies and increase data availability.
- Utilizing existing data is an effective alternative to overcome the issues raised by the pandemic, namely budget pressures and methodological challenges.
- Exploring alternative methods to surveying is essential to limiting data gaps at the times of COVID-19, considering the restraints that original approaches are currently facing, as shown by the promising example of a hybrid approach in Kenya that implemented both conventional and new methodologies.
Tomoko Vazeer, an expert in SDG localization, local governance and SDG16 at the UNDP Regional Hub for Arab States in Amman, addressed issues around the concept of SDG16+ and its monitoring and implementation within the broader SDGs framework. Vazeer stressed the importance of recognizing interlinkages between different areas of development such as between governance, development and human rights to allow for a more comprehensive understanding of the SDGs. She then illustrated case studies of alternative solutions adopted in Iraq and Tunisia to create a more inclusive SDGs process with the local populace, as reported within their respective Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). Tomoko Vazeer ended by listing three strategies that should be readily adopted in the strive for SDGs implementation: the strengthening of institutions, the investment in national and independent statistical offices and the strengthening of multi-stakeholder partnerships in the monitoring of SDG16. View Tomoko Vazeer's full presentation.
An open discussion among the panelists and attendees followed. The main perspectives that emerged from the debate are the following:
- Joel Martinez argued that the COVID-19 crisis widened a justice gap that was already present in many societies, and stressed that data collection is the only way to monitor the inequalities that permeate different societies and to assess how much worse the situation has become with the pandemic.
- Tomoko Vazeer and Massimo Tommasoli both claimed that, despite the global nature of the SDGs agenda, individual member states have the possibility of integrating official statistics and other reliable data in order to localize the SDGs and make their implementation more relevant to local contexts.
- John Romano noted that while data points are objective, their interpretation may be subjective, and therefore statistics are only as useful as the narrative crafted around them. The ideal narrative to support is that independent and non-official data sets have a central role in providing a complete picture of reality.
In conclusion, Massimo Tommasoli reiterated the necessity of including more qualitative and non-official data to contextualize the analyses of the SDGs, and the need of supporting capacity building strategies that factor in the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath. He also stressed that the conversation on democratic governance at the times of COVID-19 must continue and that partnerships play an important role in advocating for the SDGs, especially SDG16.
*The full webinar is available on International IDEA's YouTube channel.
**The concept note and biographies are available on International IDEA's website.