• Discussion paper
  • 28 June 2016

Household surveys: do competing standards serve country needs?

Our research finds that two-thirds of questions in the 2 most widely used household surveys are either identical or similar enough to be practically comparable.


Beata Lisowska

Household surveys are currently the most important data source for a range of key demographic and socioeconomic statistics in developing countries. They are the most effective method of filling the vacuums that exist because of a lack of credible data from more sustainable registry and administrative sources. Even as better systems are rolled out, surveys will continue to play an important quality-control role.

There are three major international household survey programmes in use around the world. These have become increasingly similar but each contains unique, useful modules. Our research finds that two-thirds of the questions in the two most widely used surveys are either identical or similar enough to be practically comparable.

This presents developing countries with a dilemma. Do they, at great expense, commission multiple surveys, or do they accept that they cannot afford to collect all the data they require?

There are two ways to solve the problem of competing standards: combine them into one, or establish functional links between them. We argue that the interests of developing countries would be best served by the integration of the three programmes, and that until this is possible it is critical that data from different surveys is capable of being joined up.

Over the past 18 months, the problems of duplication and the lack of interoperability and comparability – between surveys, datasets, countries and over time – have been recognised by the global statistical community in general, and by the three lead institutions in particular. The UN Statistical Commission has established a working group to coordinate efforts to tackle the problem and the three agencies – UNICEF, USAID and the World Bank – have signed a statement of collaboration and are working more closely together.

While welcoming these initiatives we urge all those involved to recognise that in the current political climate, with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Transformative Agenda for Official Statistics, there is a real opportunity to fast-track the political and practical work required to pool all resources and expertise to ensure the most beneficial and cost-effective outcome for developing countries.

This discussion paper was written as a part of the Joined-up Data Standards project, a joint initiative between Development Initiatives and Publish What You Fund.