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  • Blog
  • 30 June 2021

Data, language and the power to change norms

It’s time we asked ourselves some hard questions about the power imbalance within the development sector.

Written by Claudia Wells

Director of Data Use

There is an extreme power imbalance within the development sector, derived from deep-rooted colonial attitudes and patterns of patronage. This inequality of power has resulted in an overriding norm that providers are good and are doing the job for the right reasons, while recipients should be grateful for any assistance they receive. This narrative must change, from one of providers and recipients to one of duty bearers and rights holders. As the wider development sector looks to tackle these entrenched power inequalities, the data for development community must reflect on some fundamental questions on the politics around data.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is clear about the role of data in leaving no one behind. Ensuring that no one is invisible and that their experiences and needs are captured is essential for designing inclusive policies and programs. Without this commitment, history tells us that only some of our communities and societies will progress. Often, those in the most disadvantaged situations will fall further behind. 

The focus on data is even sharper now than it was when Agenda 2030 was adopted in 2015 — as we’ve seen with the publication of the landmark World Bank Development Report on data this year. As we continue to grapple with the inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of data has never been more important — to inform response, recovery and ultimately hold our decision-makers to account.

But at the same time, data is no longer seen as universally beneficial, with governments and citizens around the world all grappling with challenges around privacy, misuse of data and the rising power of the Tech Giants. The application of data and digital technology in the development sector risks reinforcing power imbalances and if left unchecked, data colonialism will threaten the efforts of the data revolution. Much of the data collected across the world is extracted from the communities and nations that it is about, but stored, used and disseminated to actors globally. Rather than data collected and used locally to inform direct service provision, data is frequently shared with those who have more power but are less accountable to the communities that data is about.  

Therefore, we are not just talking about more inclusive approaches that fill data gaps, we need to ensure full inclusion across the data value chain — from design and production to dissemination and use. The human-rights based approach to data is increasingly used across various settings; from official statistics to data generated by civil society organisations and communities themselves. Development planning and poverty measurement are two concrete examples, and demonstrate that being part of — and ideally having a leadership role across — the data value chain can empower people and communities to demand what they deserve and hold their leaders to account.

Ultimately it will be our values, our integrity and our collective ability to bring wide-ranging voices to the table to mitigate against power inequalities within our work that will be the test of whether data truly becomes a route to equality and inclusion.

Development Initiatives is proud to be co-leading track one of the Data Values Project on ‘Data as a Route to Inclusion and Equity,’ working alongside a diverse set of people and organisations from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data’s Technical Advisory Group, along with fellow co-leads Al Kags of the Open Institute and Florentin Albu of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. This track is exploring the following questions:

  1. Addressing inequality: In what ways can data and technology deepen or lessen inequalities, and what can be done to rebalance towards the latter? 
  2. Translating data into practice: What are the factors that influence whether more inclusive data leads to more inclusive policies and programs?
  3. Promoting inclusion: What does genuine inclusion look like across the data value chain and how do we make this standard practice?

Our journey so far

One of our first discussions was around language, including the language we are using as part of this project. Originally the title of our track was ‘Data that delivers for the most vulnerable.' This seemingly innocent language is loaded. It validates top-down power structures and implies that vulnerability is an inherent state, rather than a result of external actions. It reinforces the power inequality by setting the ‘data’ providers as givers while ‘the most vulnerable’ are recipients robbed of agency and context. If the Data Values Project is going to bring voices together to address the power inequalities around data, then we must first ensure that the language we use represents our values.

So we decided to rename the track as ‘data as a route to inclusion and equity.' This language emphasises our core approach, to:

  • listen and be led by the voices of the communities we aim to serve
  • act with groups and communities, rather than for them
  • and recognise the ability of data to support the agency and voice of communities. 

Throughout 2021, we will be listening to a range of voices as part of an open dialogue phase, hearing perspectives on what genuine inclusion looks like across the data value chain and how we can make this standard practice. We want to hear from you. We welcome your ideas, your challenges, and any resources you think might be helpful. Please get in touch via datavalues@data4sdgs.org.

Claudia Wells is Director of Data Use at Development Initiatives and co-leads the Data Values Project track on 'Data as a route to inclusion and equity' alongside Al Kags of the Open Institute

GPSDD’s Jenna Slotin and Karen Bett provided input into this blog post.

This blog was originally published by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Data.