How we can change the world with data: harnessing the power of data to improve the lives of the most vulnerable

By Petra Nahmias, Senior Statistician, UNHCR

View of the dais during the afternoon plenary “Improving Migration Statistics – the way forward” – © UN World Data Forum

Three full days of discussion, debate and sharing of ideas at the United Nations World Data Forum have just ended. We have arrived home, exhausted from days crammed full from before breakfast to after dinner, but infused with new energy and enthusiasm having connected with inspiring colleagues and counterparts from across the world, united in appreciation of the importance of data for the common good.

A theme which struck me throughout was the importance accorded to not leaving forcibly displaced and stateless people behind. This may be because the number of forcibly displaced people has increased substantially in the past decade, reaching levels not seen since the aftermath of World War Two. At the end of 2017, there were some 28.5 million refugees and asylum-seekers who had fled their countries due to conflict or violence. The number of internally displaced due to conflict stood at some 40 million. And no large scale solutions appear on the horizon.

At the same time, data and statistics on these particularly vulnerable populations are still notably weak. Clearly there is still much to be done to provide a robust evidence base for effective and efficient policy responses and programmatic interventions and including integration into national systems as laid out in the Global Compact on Refugees.The challenges facing us in meeting these data needs are numerous and profound which is why a meeting like the UN World Data Forum is so important in learning from others and making the connections to address these challenges together.

Displacement often happens in countries with the poorest statistical capacity; IDPs will often remain in conflict-affected areas while refugees usually flee to neighbouring countries which themselves may have weak statistical systems and data capability. In many cases, refugees remain in border areas with poor accessibility and measuring people in fast-moving conflict situations with sometimes multiple displacements is always going to be difficult.

But it is not just a technical issue. Those seeking protection abroad are not always welcome in the host country and the statistics on this population are inherently political with often strong discentives to making data available. Similar challenges face statistics on internal displacement and statelessness where local and national officials may not wish numbers to be made public.

To face up to these challenges, it is essential that forcibly displaced and stateless people are included and measured in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The 2030 Agenda states that those whose needs are considered include forcibly displaced people and it has been agreed that key SDG indicators should be disaggregated by refugee status in order to obtain evidence on the well-being of this population, especially in comparison with the national host population, including their host communities. But we must also reach agreement that disaggregation should include internally displaced and stateless people as well. Forcibly displaced and stateless people must not be excluded from development plans – and if we do not measure them, then they will remain invisible. It may be a cliché but in order to count, everyone must be counted and for no-one is this truer than the forcibly displaced and stateless. It was encouraging to hear agreement across the board and in all the sessions when this point was raised that forcibly displaced and stateless people should be included and measured. Now we must work to make this happen.

Additionally, UNHCR is also working to ensure that displaced and stateless people are integrated into civil registration and vital statistics systems or other national registries. While the main purpose is to ensure a legal identity for everyone, ideally a digital one, the ability to then generate vital statistics on this population is a clear opportunity not to be missed. The World Data Forum had a strong focus on CRVS systems and, again, the agreement is there to ensure that vulnerable populations, including displaced and non-nationals, need to be included, primarily for a legal identity but also to generate statistics.

Statistical capacity to report on refugees and asylum-seekers needs to be strengthened. The work of the Expert Group on Refugee and IDP Statistics (EGRIS) is key in this regard. It has produced International Recommendations on Refugee statistics and practical guidance on their implementation. This establishes standard statistical concepts for refugees and related populations and a statistical framework which can be readily applied to measure both the stocks and flows of this displacement. These recommendations are not just important for low statistical capacity countries; even high capacity countries can often struggle to disseminate quality statistics on asylum. It was promising that the work of EGRIS was referred to in so many sessions as being transformative with the Director General of Eurostat praising the work of EGRIS as having delivered beyond expectations. The forum provided an opportunity to advocate for Phase 2 of the work around implementation with a whole range of new institutions, international, regional and national, expressing interest in joining the work.

Sometimes new technologies and approaches are needed and the sharing of ideas helps facilitate this. Innovation can also mean applying old techniques and technologies in new ways. For example, the Demographic Projection Tool applies standard demographic projection methods to UNHCR populations, facilitating evidence-based projections about changes in the populations of displaced individuals. The forum provided an opportunity to showcase this and other work (which is available to the global community) and also to learn from others about what they are doing. For example, UNFPA is leading a project “GRID3” (Georeferenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development), strengthening and improving census data, and we hope to be able to join forces with them to learn more about displaced populations.

With so many situations becoming protracted, UNHCR is facing up to the challenge by coordinating with development partners to ensure a seamless transition from humanitarian to development approaches. Clearly as the approach changes so do the data needs, and humanitarian and development partners need to work together closely to ensure that these needs are met, with consideration of future needs implemented from the earliest stages of an emergency. Bringing humanitarian and development actors together can help facilitate this process. At the forum, we organized a panel with OCHA on the humanitarian-development data gap and, in a separate panel, Kimberly Roberson of UNHCR and Gero Carletto of the World Bank had a lively and stimulating discussion on innovative techniques to bridge this gap.

While this blog post provides only a quick summary of some of the complex issues we are facing, the World Data Forum provided a unique opportunity to delve further into the issues, bringing together data users and producers from across the humanitarian and development communities to work together for the benefit of displaced and stateless populations everywhere. We have come home brimming with new ideas, new connections and renewed energy and enthusiasm and look forward to applying the outcomes of these deliberations in our day to day work.