Keynote Address of Peter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly, at High-Level Forum on Official Statistics, 48th United Nations Statistical Commission – Working together to measure progress towards the SDGs
6 March 2017
Ladies and gentlemen
It is a pleasure to address this High-Level Forum, ahead of the start of the 48th United Nations Statistical Commission.
This year we celebrate 70 years of the UN Statistical Commission’s work to drive global statistical cooperation.
It is a responsibility that is set to grow over coming years, as the international community assesses the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In the 18 months that have passed since world leaders came together to adopt the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets that underpin their achievement, a revolution in both statistics and data has been taking place across our world.
The growing global appetite for statistical information is based on the recognition of the importance of accessible, timely, and reliable data, for policy-makers to make effective SDG implementation decisions.
The importance of policy-makers being able to go behind headline statistics to access disaggregated data cannot be overstated.
We know, for example, that more than 790 million people across our world lack regular access to adequate food. But once the data is disaggregated, we see that this is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.
We know that each year, around 5.9 million children under the age of five die from largely preventable causes. But once disaggregated, we see that 45 percent of these deaths are linked to malnutrition.
We know that children represent almost 30 percent of human trafficking victims worldwide. But once disaggregated, we see that girls are nearly three times as vulnerable as boys.
And we know that the share of adults with bank accounts has risen by 20 percent over the last four years, but once disaggregated we see that financial exclusion disproportionately affects women.
When statistics like these are over-laid with other data sets – such as those showing that women in developing countries spend four times as many hours on unpaid work as men – it allows us to make better, evidence-based decisions to implement the SDGs.
Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, we have already seen significant advances in the field of global statistics.
This includes the release of the UN’s first Annual Sustainable Development Goals Report, which sets out clear markers on our SDG implementation starting line, shows areas of early progress, and makes clear the scale of the challenge that remains before us.
As these reports are released over time, they will empower governments and partners to track implementation progress, and adjust strategies along the way, so that gaps are filled, successes built upon, and ultimately that no one is left behind.
In addition, the UN’s Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators has released the first Global SDG indicator framework, and the first UN World Data Forum has been held, bringing together statistical experts with major users of data to collaborate on data for sustainable development.
And finally, the Cape Town Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data has been launched, providing a roadmap to strengthen collaboration, policies and resources to improve national and international statistical systems.
While the pace of this progress is encouraging, it is equally clear that far more needs to be done to address the uneven international data landscape.
In recent years, the number of Small Island Developing States with a statistical plan has fallen from nine to seven, and many of our most vulnerable populations, including rural women, Indigenous peoples, people living in slums, and people affected by conflict, are consistently left out of data sets.
In an environment where an unprecedented amount of data is required for SDG implementation and monitoring, greater coordinated global data-generation efforts are urgently needed.
A number of key steps should be pursued in this regard.
Firstly, we must support the work of UN statisticians on whose shoulders the 2030 Agenda places significant responsibility, including to develop the global indicator framework, and collect, analyze, and disaggregate an unparalleled amount of global data.
Secondly, we need to scale up our capacity-building efforts for national and regional statistical organizations in need, in order to build up their resilience, responsiveness, and ability to collect and share high-quality, disaggregated and internationally comparable data.
Thirdly, we need to establish stronger and broader multi-stakeholder partnerships among all key actors across Government, international and regional organizations, civil society and the private sector, to leverage comparative advantages in data collection and statistical analysis.
Fourthly, we must give special attention to ensure that vulnerable, marginalized and under-counted groups, are captured in our data collection efforts. This includes through providing dedicated statistics funding to ensure that they are not left behind.
And finally, we should look at ways to build up our capacity to access and utilize big data for official statistics, and to promote data-driven, evidence-based decision-making for the public good, which is based on principles relating to data sharing, open data, and data rights.
As it stands, global technological advancements have led to the production and collection of an unprecedented amount of real-time data, at a level of depth and breadth never seen before.
Indeed, in a world where almost every person has access to a mobile phone, half the global population has access to the internet, and the other half is expected to gain such access within the next five to ten years, the use of big-data tools to harness information from internet traffic offers new frontiers for data collection.
Building capacities and developing public-private partnerships will enable Governments to tap into the 2.5 Quintillion bytes of data created each day, and help to fast-track our efforts to implement and monitor the SDG.
At the same time, big-data brings multi-dimensional challenges when it comes to ethics and human rights. These go to the core of our democracies, freedoms and security and must be managed carefully. This includes through the convening and managing of the necessary normative dialogue focused on bringing together central actors for discussions on ethical frameworks and the sharing of best practice to promote and enforce common standards for data collection, production, anonymisation, sharing and use.
The UN Statistical Commission, together with the General Assembly and other entities, has an important role to play, in launching this conversation of global importance and with consequences for our common future.
In the coming months, as part of our commitment to drive a universal push for implementation of all 17 SDGs during the 71st Session of the General Assembly, I will be convening a series of SDG Action Events on climate change, SDG financing, innovation, and education. Then from 5-9 June, The Ocean Conference will be held at the United Nations in support of the implementation of SDG14.
Details on these events can be found on the Office of the President of the General Assembly’s website. I encourage you all to participate. There is no doubt that data and statistics will be central to discussions at each event, and I encourage you all to participate.
Some struggle with the empirical disciplines of statistics; but like audit and evaluation, the massive tasks associated with the field of statistics are essential to honesty and accountability in the sustainable development process.
George Bernard Shaw once said ‘It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics’.
As we continue in our collective efforts to implement the SDGs and achieve a sustainable future for all, I thank you for your expertise, dedication, collaboration, and above all, for your hard-work, now and into the years to come.