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  • Blog
  • 31 October 2023

Data Governance: Do all global problems require global solutions?

DI's Bill Anderson highlights some of the complexities in aiming for a global consensus on data governance, and shares our data governance database as part of DI's commitment to digital public goods.

Written by Bill Anderson

Knowledge & Innovation Lead

In September next year, world leaders will gather in New York for the Summit of the Future “to forge a new international consensus on how we deliver a better present and safeguard the future”. One of the proposals under consideration is a Global Digital Compact “that would set out principles, objectives and actions for advancing an open, free, secure and human-centred digital future.

The scope of what this might entail is still up for discussion. We can all most probably agree that a set of principles, perhaps similar to the globally respected Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, is essential, as are interoperability standards that improve data connectivity.

However, key data stakeholders within UN institutions − including members of the Committee of the Chief Statisticians of the UN and others, from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the International Labour Organisation, the International Telecommunications Union, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, to name but a few − have more ambitious intentions. In May this year, the UN published the Pathways to Progress in which they argued that:

“The UN has an opportunity to show global leadership, decommission data as a weapon, embed common values and human rights in how data are being used, repurposed, and reinvigorate the international political infrastructure by proposing a global data governance architecture.”

United Nations, Pathways to Progress.

This would include data responsibility and accountability frameworks.

Is global agreement even likely?

Global consensus on data governance sounds good, but the world is a million miles away from singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to issues such as data protection, data sovereignty and AI regulation.

Europe’s GDPR is grounded in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which established data protection as an essential right. The United States, on the other hand, maintains that the use of personal data for commercial purposes exceeds the importance of data privacy. The US Chamber of Commerce has called for the EU to “amend its approach to regulating data in the digital economy and move instead toward a model that prioritises contractual freedom.”

The risk of data colonialism

The global data ecosystem is not a level playing field. Technologically superior multinational institutions leverage their competitive advantage in exploiting the data from low-income economies. Consequently, many countries in Africa have introduced legislation to localise the storage of nationally produced data and to prioritise data sharing within the African Continental Free Trade Area. Countries are under immense pressure from global institutions and multinationals to end this ‘protectionism’. See for example the work of the neoliberal Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, ‘The Cost of Data Localization Policies in Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Vietnam’.

Anu Bradford, Professor of Law and International Organization at Columbia Law School, has recently published a book called Digital Empires about the implications of competing American, European and Chinese models of AI regulation:

“As the world’s leading technological, economic, and regulatory powers, they are “digital empires”: each not only regulating its domestic markets but also exporting its regulatory model and aiming to shape the global digital order in its own interests. Some governments may align their regulatory stance with the American market-driven approach, opting for light-touch regulation; others may side with the EU’s rights-driven approach, pursuing binding legislation that sets constraints on AI development; and some authoritarian countries will look to China, emulating its state-focused regulatory model.”

Anu Bradford, Whose AI Revolution? Available at:

What alternative approaches are being taken?

There are other paths. In September, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations formally began negotiations for its own Digital Economy Framework Agreement, a regional regulatory framework envisioned to keep Southeast Asia competitive in the global digital economy.

The African Union has also not been idle. In the past decade it has produced ten policy instruments related to data governance. Much of the thinking in these instruments has come from national initiatives. Over the past decade, for example, Nigeria has produced 20 relevant instruments, from policies and strategies to legislation and regulations.

Table: Data governance instruments produced by the African Union

Year Policy instrument
2014 Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection
2017 Strategy for the Harmonization of Statistics in Africa (2017−2026)
2019 Sharm El Sheikh Declaration on Digital Transformation
2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa
2020 Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020−2030)
2020 Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa
2020 Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa
2022 The African Union Data Policy Framework
2022 Common Data Categorization and Sharing Framework
2024 The African Union Artificial Intelligence Continental Strategy For Africa

Much of the discussion around data governance relies on policy papers written by global institutions. Global institutions – bilaterals, multilaterals and INGOs – are investing substantial resources into toolkits and training programmes to ‘teach’ low-income countries how to do data governance. There are, however, increasing calls for a southern perspective to be brought into these processes, such as that made by Dr Rachel Adams, as reported in the article ‘Catalyzing Responsible AI Governance in Africa: Insights, Challenges, and Solutions’.

Pinning down what we expect data governance to deliver is open to a range of different interpretations. Global Data Justice, an EU-funded programme which broadly supports EU values, held a workshop at Mozfest 2022 at which they tried, unsuccessfully, to establish consensus on the meaning and scope of the concept:

"It was challenging to answer with a unified conceptualization of what we want data governance to achieve. Participants had an easier time conceptualizing harms, specific data technologies and applications, and particular rights that pertain to data rather than thinking normatively about data governance per se – what kind of power gets balanced and arbitrated when we do it."

Global Data Justice, 2022. 'Impossible conditions: what happened when we asked Mozfest participants how to break data governance'. Available at:

Can better evidence inform this debate?

As a contribution towards these discussions, we at DI have started to build the evidence base of national and regional official initiatives that should, in our view, be taken more seriously. Our Data Governance Database is a work in progress where we are collating records of official documents covering a broad scope of governance and development issues. Figure 1 provides a breakdown of this scope for the 224 documents currently recorded in the database. Our starting point has been Africa but if the need exists, we will extend its coverage.

As part of our commitment to digital public goods the database is publicly available at Anyone may register and browse, download or reuse the content . We would also like to invite partners from the Global South and those attending the Festival De Datos in Uruguay to help us populate the database. Our colleague, Claudia Wells, will be at the festival so please look her up if you would like to learn more about our work: [email protected]. You can also find her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @StatsClaudie.

We are still in the early stages of building this evidence base but already we can’t help but pose the question: with the existing wealth of national and regional inputs is there really the need for another global edifice?

Figure: Current number of documents in the database by category

Figure: Current number of documents in the database by category
Type of publication Number of publications
Fourth Industrial Revolution 5
AI 11
Development 13
Transparency 21
Statistical governance 27
Data governance 38
Digital transformation 39
Protection & Privacy 67

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