Volume 17, No.12 - December 2013

Feature articles

“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.

For more information:

UN DESA’s Statistics Division

The Millennium Development Goals Report 2013

Statistics and indicators for the post-2015 development era

United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management

“A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development”

Opening the door for people of all abilities

The global community took a giant step forward during the High-level Meeting on Disability and Development in September to break down barriers for the more than 1 billion persons living with some form of disability. With a historic outcome document adopted, this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December, aims to kick-off an action-filled course towards an inclusive society, embracing all human beings.

About 15 per cent of the global population live with some form of disability, making up the largest and most disadvantaged minority in the world. 80 per cent are of working age and the majority are from developing countries. Many of them live in poverty, face discrimination and are denied opportunities to participate in development.

“All of us suffer when communities are divided; just as all of us benefit when communities are united”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

“All of us suffer when communities are divided; just as all of us benefit when communities are united,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he addressed some 800 representatives that had gathered at UN Headquarters in New York for the high-level event in September. “We must remove barriers to equality of opportunity so that all people can be free from poverty and discrimination,” he added.

In addition to making physical environments, transportation and information accessible to everyone, the challenges at hand also involve removing barriers in attitudes, that fuel stigma and discrimination. Instead, focus needs to be shifted towards every person’s ability. This was also something that Daniela Bas, Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, underscored as she spoke in conjunction with this high-level event.

Tools for action and change

In order to realize an inclusive society where everyone’s rights are protected and equal opportunities are ensured, the United Nations is working side by side with governments and civil society. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is both a human right and social development instrument available to make a difference. Since its entry into force in 2008, 138 countries have ratified or acceded to the Convention, and 158 have signed it.

Another important tool for transformation became available following the High-level Meeting on Disability and Development in September when a landmark document was adopted. Entitled “The way forward, a disability-inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond,” this document underscores the need for “urgent action” towards the adoption and implementation of more ambitious disability-inclusive development strategies.

“To turn these commitments into reality on the ground, stakeholders must implement more ambitious disability-inclusive national development strategies and efforts”

Wu Hongbo

“To turn these commitments into reality on the ground, stakeholders must implement more ambitious disability-inclusive national development strategies and efforts,” said UN DESA’s Under-Secretary-General Wu Hongbo as he addressed the meeting. “DESA stands ready to provide cooperation and partnership to Members States and other stakeholders in the elaboration, implementation and monitoring of inclusive and sustainable development policies and programmes, towards 2015 and beyond,” Mr. Wu added.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Celebrations and new UN Accessibility Center

Every year on 3 December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is commemorated worldwide to promote awareness and mobilize support on critical issues to ensure that persons with disabilities are included in society and development.

Under the theme “Break Barriers, Open Doors: for an inclusive society and development for all,” various activities will take place to underscore the importance of accessibility and inclusion in the contexts of development. With only two months passed since the high-level event, the celebrations this year offer an ideal platform to transfer the outcome document into actions and to mobilise support to national efforts.

The program at UN headquarters in New York will feature “Messages of Inclusion” to be delivered by Member States, UN system and civil society, highlighting how the outcome document can be translated into action. The event will also present a UN Enable Theatre performance by the Broadway Group “Breaking through Barriers,” several panel discussions on emerging issues in the disability-development nexus, and the screening of the documentary “Gold: You can do more than you think”, telling the story of three Paralympic athletes from Kenya, Germany and Australia, who took part in the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

In addition to the commemoration at UN Headquarters, people from across the world are encouraged to take part in a Thunderclap, lending their social media channels to show support for this international day and what it stands for (follow this link to sign up).

The United Nations Foundation and will also join the celebrations to promote volunteerism by taking concrete steps to create enabling environments within communities and across the world for persons with disabilities. Also, on 4 December, the Secretary-General will inaugurate the new UN Accessibility Center, created to make the United Nations more accessible and to facilitate the full participation of persons with disabilities in the work of the organization.

Embracing the abilities of all people

“I make an earnest plea and call upon all of you to look at people with disabilities as differently-abled”

Emmanuel Elisha Ford

Recent events provide additional resources to facilitate change towards a society that includes persons with all kinds of abilities and disabilities. This was also something that a young speaker from last year’s celebration expressed a wish for. Addressing the event on 3 December 2012, 10-year-old Emmanuel Elisha Ford, blind since birth, urged, “I make an earnest plea and call upon all of you to look at people with disabilities as differently-abled.” Determined to achieve his dream of becoming a meteorologist one day, Emmanuel also encouraged nations across the world to make the most of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

And the international community is moving forward in this direction. The new landmark outcome document sets the vision beyond the Millennium Development Goals target date and underscores the need for disability-inclusive development strategies in the post-2015 setting. Taking aim at breaking down barriers and opening up doors, so that every human being can live their life to the fullest potential.

This is the vision of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in his concluding remarks to the high-level meeting said, “Let us work together so everyone, everywhere has the chance to live their dreams and use the gifts that they have been given. Let us advance disability-inclusive development, inspire change on the ground and ensure a life of dignity for all.”

For more information:

International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Show support of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities via Thunderclap

United Nations Enable website

High-Level Meeting on Disabilities and Development, 23 September 2013

Video interviews with civil society representatives from High-Level Meeting on Disabilities and Development, 23 September 2013

Securing a solid foundation for future development

Securing a solid foundation for future development (Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID)

In preparation for the sustainable development goals and the post-2015 development agenda, UN DESA is involved in many different initiatives moving the processes forward. Recent and upcoming publications released by the department and its partners, also play an important role in securing a solid point of departure for future development. 

The General Assembly’s Open-Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals continues its work drafting a set of global objectives that will help set the world on a more sustainable path. Organized by UN DESA’s Division for Sustainable Development, the OWG convened its fifth session on 25-27 November, taking aim at topics including sustained and inclusive economic growth, macroeconomic policy questions, infrastructure development and industrialization.

On the side-lines of this event, UN DESA’s Division for Development Policy and Analysis arranged two special briefings to highlight recent and new publications that provide the global community with research, analysis and recommendations that will help lay a solid foundation for the post-2015 development agenda.

Briefing highlights book on alternative development strategies

“New policy approaches are needed to address severe global development challenges”

“The CDP [United Nations Committee for Development Policy] has taken upon itself the task to examine and draw lessons from past experiences so that we can formulate more effective, comprehensive approaches in identifying durable and equitable solutions to the development challenges the world confronts today,” said Ms. Shamshad Akhtar, UN DESA’s Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, on 25 November, when the new book “Alternative Development Strategies for the Post-2105 Era”, was launched.

Authored by independent development experts brought together by ECOSOC’s independent advisory body CDP, and edited by José Antonio Alonso, Giovanni Andrea Cornia and Rob Vos, this book argues that new policy approaches are needed to address severe global development challenges and to avoid the potentially adverse consequences to livelihoods that are likely to result from existing strategies.

“No one size fits all, no silver bullets”

The flaws in existing economic policymaking systems became evident in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, which coincided with several other crises, including skyrocketing and highly volatile world food and energy prices and ongoing climate change challenges.

In her address, Ms. Akhtar noted that the book provides some important answers to current challenges. “We need to learn from successful national experiences. There is no one size fits all, no silver bullets. However, there are some common elements among those successful policies which provide important lessons for us in formulating an alternative development strategy,” she said.

“We need to learn from successful national experiences”

Shamshad Akhtar, ASG of UN DESA

Giving praise to its rich analysis, Ms. Akhtar also highlighted how the “book stresses that a more cooperative, inclusive and effective international governance system needs to be designed based on the principle of ‘common-but-differentiated responsibilities’” and how the post-2015 development era “should take into account the interdependence among global goals and ensure coherence between these goals and those established at the local, national and regional levels.”

Assessing options for statistics and indicators

The report “Statistics and indicators for the post-2015 development agenda”, released earlier in the summer by the UN System Task Team’s Working Group on Monitoring and Indicators, was presented during a side event on 26 November. Stefan Schweinfest, Acting Director of UN DESA’s Statistics Division, joined forces with the lead author of the report Robert Johnston, to share some of its key findings and recommendations.

The report assesses options for statistics and indicators in a post-2015 setting and provides an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the MDG indicators. It also outlines data innovations in new critical areas such as inequalities, governance, sustainability and population.

It considers national capacities for statistics and makes some key suggestions on how to further foster these when developing a monitoring framework for the post-2015 agenda. The intention is to provide early inputs into the discussion; so that once all goals and thematic areas have been put in place by UN member States, there will be some common ground for the identification of monitoring indicators and data sources.

Gathering knowledge and research findings, these publications provide important inputs as Member States, Major Groups and other stakeholders collaborate in the quest of mapping out the development beyond 2015 and towards the future we want.

For more information:

Briefing on the new book “Alternative Development Strategies for the Post-2015 Era”

Briefing on the report “Statistics and indicators for the post-2015 development agenda”