First build the foundations: Shaida Badiee on governments’ misplaced aid policies

By on 02/03/2021
Shaida Badiee is a former director of the World Bank’s Development Data Group and now leads an NGO, Open Data Watch. Credit: IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

After nearly two decades running the World Bank’s Development Data Group, Shaida Badiee now works to help developing nations improve their data systems. And she has a clear message for donor countries: individual aid projects can be helpful, but the real need is for basic data infrastructure

During her long career in strategic data management, Shaida Badiee has had some diverse jobs. For 18 years, she was director of the World Bank’s Development Data Group – establishing the organisation from scratch in 1993, and building it up to a 200-strong team. And for the last eight years, she’s run Open Data Watch, a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) that campaigns to improve global access to high-quality development data.

At the World Bank, Badiee focused on helping developing countries to improve their data systems, and on opening up the institution’s data – making it “freely accessible to everybody.” She retired in 2013 – but “I thought my job wasn’t done”: moving out into the voluntary sector, she established Open Data Watch to keep up the pressure for change. Organisations “like the World Bank, which are really governed by the [member] countries, have some restrictions on how much they can do,” she says delicately. Working through an NGO, she can “gently call countries to task on some of the issues”.

That independence comes with responsibilities. “When you’re in a big organisation, you’re so shielded; so protected; you have so much resource,” she says. “But in a small NGO you have to be like the mouse that roars. You’re small, but you have to have a big impact.”

Roaring on a bigger platform

And over the years, the potential to make that big impact in data has expanded hugely. Since Badiee took her first job aged 19, data management has developed from “only a back office function into the frontline function of making data and evidence really part of organisations’ planning and decision-making.” The pandemic, she notes, has accelerated that trend – pushing governments into making better use of their existing administrative data, while creating an “urgency for government offices to talk to each other and do more data sharing.”

Nations are also publishing more data for re-use by others: “Countries are beginning to realise how important it is to report data – and also to disaggregate it: to break it down by sex and other attributes,” she says. “There’s been innovations in promoting website development and dashboards, and in making data more accessible, because demand has gone up.”

In many parts of the world, though, countries lack the infrastructure and staff even to gather and hold essential data, let alone to publish it. “Many countries don’t have effective civil registration vital statistics: many births, deaths and causes of deaths, marriages and divorces are not recorded,” she explains. “And without having these life events recorded and people counted, we don’t have the base for a good statistical system.”

Building firm foundations

Addressing this gap, much of Open Data Watch’s work focuses on encouraging donor nations to support others in building up these essential, underlying data systems. It’s much easier to attract funding for stand-alone development projects, she comments: “A lot of the developed countries now have their favourite topics: they want to help Africa on violence against women, or Latin America to do care economy improvement.” But, she adds, “countries also need to improve their foundational systems, otherwise it’s like a band aid treatment: you never really improve the foundations.”

“There’s a lot of pressure in the developed world – in the UK, for example – to check that money is being spent well, and they’re reluctant to hand money to governments: they fear corruption, that some of it will disappear,” she explains. But “infrastructure work really has to be delivered by people right inside that government. It’s not the kind of thing you can do via a business development scheme: ‘We’ll get the department on board, but we’ll partner with that charity. They can do the delivery: we know them, we can watch them, we can control it all’.” So that’s the challenge: “How can countries from the poor world side provide reassurance to the donors? And how can the donors give themselves a bit more comfort in letting go?”

Badiee urges donor governments to come together around a developing world nation and start by discussing its infrastructure needs, inviting national data chiefs to “make a business case for investments in data systems.” Donors should agree to allocate a proportion of their spending to foundational systems, she argues. And in return, developing nations should build strong reporting systems, feeding back information to monitor and evidence delivery against investment plans. “If you build that [monitoring] in at the beginning; if you’re very transparent; if you bring it together with a country’s plan and its needs, and put the country in the driving seat for both delivery and showing the results base – then I think that really works,” she says.

These reporting systems should be integrated into the new infrastructure’s development. If donors insist on introducing their own reporting requirements, then “you have a data system being built, and next to it a parallel system for monitoring results,” she comments. “So if you can integrate the two – if the results base is part of the [investment’s] delivery of data – that would be a real step forward.”

Don’t just gather it; distribute it

As countries develop these infrastructures, says Badiee, the data they generate isn’t only helpful in improving government policymaking and service delivery: publishing anonymised datasets helps improve research and decision-making in global development and aid work, producing wider benefits. And the ‘open data’ agenda is a democratising force: “When data is closed, only elite groups have access to it,” she says. “But when you open it up to everybody, you remove some of this asymmetry of access to information. That helps create a more equal society – and boy, do we need some equality right now!”

To promote the publication of national development data, each year Open Data Watch publishes its Open Data Inventory (ODIN). Examining nearly 200 countries’ publication of a set of indicators linked to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, this scores each nation on their coverage and openness. Singapore has a comfortable lead in the 2020-21 ODIN, with the rest of the top 10 dominated by Scandinavian and continental European nations (plus, at number nine, the wild card of Mongolia).

Given former UK prime minister David Cameron’s noisy commitment to the open data agenda, it’s a surprise to find the UK in 64th place – below every other European country bar Belgium, Latvia and a handful of Balkan nations. The UK’s public bodies generally have good data systems, Badiee explains, but ODIN assesses accessibility from a user perspective; and the UK doesn’t provide a central hub signposting citizens to these widely-scattered datasets. “If the government has a decentralised data model, with different agencies managing and disseminating their own data, we hope that the national statistical offices – in this case, the Office of National Statistics – will link to this other data; but the UK hasn’t done that,” she comments. “I hope maybe in the future.”

Operate in the open

Making data freely available, Badiee believes, also helps strengthen public trust – whittling away at the suspicion and cynicism that can stymie governments’ attempts to make better use of information. “The issue of trust goes back to not having transparent processes,” she says, arguing for the creation of strong data governance processes and the appointment of chief data officers.

To maintain trust in governments’ use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, she argues, clear standards are required; ideally, the algorithms should be made open source. And here, Badiee believes there’s a need for concerted global action: “Do we need an international movement around AI and machine learning? Absolutely!” she says. “The United Nations will have a very important role to play in bringing countries together and agreeing on a minimum set of standards.”

Badiee knows only too well that many non-democratic countries use data technologies to expand their control over citizens – and of the public suspicion that fosters around the world. “We need to be aware of that, but also to highlight the benefits of data,” she comments. “We need civil society groups to watch for the bad side of data use; writers to talk about the issues around bias in data; journalists to call people or governments to task – so that we can keep the good side of data, improving lives.”

For data has huge potential to help people around the world – supporting both better domestic public services, and more effective global development work. But without public trust, democratic governments will never be able to realise that potential – and trust, Badiee notes, is a delicate commodity. “There’s a saying that trust comes to you walking, but leaves on horseback,” she says. “It takes a long time to get it, and you can lose it in an instant.”

Shaida Badiee: five thoughts for better government

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions on camera – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. You can watch the video or read edited responses below:

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“For me, it has to be a friend and colleague: the Swedish professor Hans Rosling, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. He was best known for his theatrical presentations that brought data to life with stories and visualisations, which he hoped would change people’s mindsets and improve their understanding of the world. He provoked many powerful agencies and organisations to stop selling their public data: he came up with the name of a disease – because he was a health specialist – and called [organisations’ reluctance to publish their data] DBHD, or Data Base Hugging Disorder. That really worked to get the message across, and it’s really stayed with me all these years.”

Are there any projects or innovations from Open Data Watch that you think might be valuable to people around the world?

“One innovation that’s been very popular is a concept that we call data value chain. Visually and practically, this specifies the steps that data goes through from production to use, with the aim of increasing its impact and value.

“Another example is the Open Data Inventory, which helps and persuades countries to make their official statistics more accessible and open. We take a user’s perspective, and do a deep dive in countries’ data systems. And we see some really good news, even in the time of COVID: over 75% of the countries improved their open data practices, and the number of countries who are top-performing is diversifying. So it’s not only developed country progress, but many countries from low- and middle-income countries are making improvements.

“But we also see a lot of areas that need to be worked on. One that it’s really sad for me to see is that gender data is not improving as much as other data sectors.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their peers overseas?

“What I have seen work best is creating semi-formal networks for country officials to interact with one another. We’ve started with our partners, Data2X and the Economic Commission for Africa, to set up a network of data officers in charge of gender data in national statistical offices. We call it the Africa Gender Data Network, and I’m hoping that it would be extended to other regions soon. It simply provides a space for cross-country knowledge sharing, and especially during COVID-19 it has been great to exchange ideas on innovative approaches – like mobile phone surveys – or just to talk about challenges and seek support.

“Another example is the UN World Data Forum, which is a great network for bringing together groups from multiple disciplines. Because data has been always a technical issue, we always looked for technical solutions. But in fact, much more could be done on the social side to bring people together.”

What are the biggest global challenges in your field?

“We are at a very critical point in what I call the data revolution cycle. There is no more ‘if’: if we should build better data systems; if we should pay more attention to certain sectors like gender. So it’s more about ‘how’: how do we increase the value from data to improve lives and build sustainable statistical systems in government agencies and other stakeholders?

“But many countries lack resources. So we need to see an increase: we calculate, almost a doubling of investments – both from domestic and from international aid for data systems. Unfortunately, we also monitor the flows of aid, and we see that the needle on investment on data is not moving in the right direction. So we are not only advocating for more resources, but also considering the next best thing: how do better with existing allocations – cutting duplications, using information platforms to guide decision-making like a clearing house. In fact, a group called the Bern Network, which is funded by the Swiss, is trying to bring a lot of different groups together, using the power of networks to contribute to this area.”

What’s your favourite book?

“It has to be Invisible Woman by Caroline Criado Perez: an amazing book, bringing out stories and case studies on gaps in gender data – in many ways created by the biases that we have in our societies. Those biases have made their way into data collection, and then negatively impact or affect the lives of women. We have a lot of room to improve our data collections and remove biases, which are mostly hidden. It’s a great book, making the case for better data systems to accurately count and leave no one behind.”

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.

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