“We need sustainable statistics to support sustainable development”
For almost as long as the UN has existed, development data has been collected, generating a crucial asset for the international community. Behind this important effort is UN DESA’s Statistics Division, led by Stefan Schweinfest. In DESA News, he shares what it takes to measure an ever changing world and to prepare for development beyond 2015.
“Statistics is one of those quiet areas where the United Nations is actually working very, very well,” says Stefan Schweinfest, as he speaks with DESA News. “We have a lot to be proud of. I think we have collected billions and billions of development data here […] over the last 67-68 years, and this is a real treasure,” he adds.
With 24 years of experience working with statistics for the UN, Mr. Schweinfest has covered many different areas including national and environmental accounting, statistical capacity building programmes and indicator frameworks. Since 2002, he has served as the main coordinator of the Statistical Commission and he has also been one of the leading forces in the establishment of the United Nations Initiative on Global Geospatial Information Management. On 1 April 2013, Stefan Schweinfest was appointed Acting Director of UN DESA’s Statistics Division.
Tracking progress of Millennium Development Goals
For the past 13 years, one of the key activities of the division has been to monitor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000, and to prepare the statistical annex for the annual MDG report of the Secretary-General.
“The MDGs have been good for statistics. They have highlighted the need of solid and good information for policy and decision-making”
“The MDGs have been good for statistics. They have highlighted the need of solid and good information for policy and decision-making,” says Stefan Schweinfest. He also talks warmly about the cooperation with the inter-agency expert group, that brings together “the best statisticians […] and the best statistics of the entire UN System”, and how their collaborative efforts result in the annual MDG report.
“We definitely […] have much more information today and better information today than we had 15 years ago or 13 years ago. But we should also bear in mind that there are still about 1/3 of the countries that have difficulties producing about half of the indicators,” Mr. Schweinfest adds, underlining that there is still extensive work to be done.
Statisticians need to be involved from start
When speaking about the new post-2015 development agenda that is being developed, Stefan Schweinfest underscores the need to have statisticians onboard from the start. “One of the lessons learned from the last round was that statisticians need to be involved in the process from the very beginning,” he says.
Mr. Schweinfest points to the Friends of the Chair Group, which the Statistical Commission created this year and which brings together about 20 very dedicated countries and their chief statisticians. The Statistics Division is working closely with them to develop broader measures of progress needed in the context of the sustainable development agenda and to also ensure that a solid measuring framework is part of the new development agenda.
“We are not taking pictures, we are making a movie”
Stefan Schweinfest also talks about the request for a data revolution, which was put forward in the report released earlier this year by the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, entitled “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development”.
“I am very pleased with that type of attention given to my professional area and I understand this to mean that we will have to make a massive concerted effort to help countries to strengthen national statistical systems,” he says. His team is now working to enhance partnerships both within and outside the UN System in order to be able to support countries around the world. A new cooperation agreement on statistics has been signed recently with the World Bank, the International Development Banks and the IMF.
“In statistics […] there are no short cuts, there are no quick fixes”
“In statistics […] there are no short cuts, there are no quick fixes,” says Mr. Schweinfest. “What we are trying to measure is development and so we have to have not only one measurement at one point in time, but we will have to have measurements at several points in times, annually, or every three to five years over the next 15 years.”
“I am always saying, we are not taking pictures, we are actually making a movie, so when we talk about sustainable development, we also need sustainable statistics to support sustainable development.”
Powerful analytical tools created
“Being innovative is one of the fundamental challenges of our profession because we are measuring the world and the world around us is changing continuously in so many areas,” says Stefan Schweinfest, as he describes some of the new pioneering work of his division.
One example is the launch of a new initiative on global geospatial information management, bringing together the geospatial community with statisticians. “We believe that this marriage […] between geospatial information and statistical information will create very powerful analytical tools,” explains Mr. Schweinfest.
Environmental economic accounting is another area developed by the division and the expert team of the Statistics Division is now working with countries and regions around the world to implement this new system. What this offers is the possibility of jointly analyzing the environment and the economy and their interaction.
Gender statistics and big data
Mr. Schweinfest also discusses their global gender statistics programme, where they have been working on indicators on violence against women and where they have also launched a new project together with UN Women, called Evidence and Data for Gender Equality (EDGE).
Yet another area is big data, which is the result of the IT development and its generation of large quantities of data elements. Mr. Schweinfest explains that some of these data may be useful for statistical and monitoring purposes, while others are not. “But we as statisticians have to look at this new big reservoir of information,” he says.
Ensuring measuring system for future development
As the new year approaches, Mr. Schweinfest shares some of the main activities which will take place in 2014. “Clearly the support of the discussions on the new development agenda will be our focus in 2014 and 2015 to ensure that the sustainable development agenda is supported by an adequate and robust measurement system.”
The Statistical Commission is also scheduled to convene again in March, bringing together a large number of countries and statisticians from across the world. On global geospatial information management an inter-governmental meeting as well as a high-level forum in China will also be organized in August and October respectively.
“Statistics is as important an element of a national infrastructure as are roads or bridges”
And in-between these high-level events, Mr. Schweinfest and his colleagues are engaged in organizing and hosting a wide range of workshops and capacity-building seminars around the globe with fellow statisticians participating. When describing the worldwide collaboration, Stefan Schweinfest refers to his peers as his “statistical family”, praising their shared value system and sense of professionalism.
“Statistics may not sound like the most sexy area to work in. Actually, when I mention in a dinner conversation, that I am a statistician, that’s usually the end of the dinner conversation,” he says with a smile.
But without the collection and analysis of data, there would be no solid foundation to build decisions upon and take action from, benefiting future development. “I would say statistics is as important an element of a national infrastructure as are roads or bridges,” concludes Stefan Schweinfest.
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