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There's A 'Glaring' Gap In The War Against Poverty And Disease

Katherine Streeter for NPR

It's almost a year to the day since world leaders committed to meeting 17 "Sustainable Development Goals" by 2030, from wiping out extreme poverty to fighting disease and inequality.

Perhaps they should have added an 18th goal — compiling all the data needed to achieve the other goals.

This data gap has been the talk among advocates for the poor this week as the U.N. General Assembly's current session got underway. It was at last year's General Assembly that the 17 goals were set.

The only way to achieve them is to know where we stand now. And it's surprising how little data is available on the rates of everything from disease to employment in poor countries, says Trevor Mundel, president of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — which is one of NPR's financial supporters.

"It is amazing — all the data gaps that we have are just vast in the areas where there's the most pressing need," says Mundel.

For instance, governments and international organizations and researchers still aren't collecting basic statistics on a lot of major diseases in Africa.

Take typhoid. It's a big killer in South Asia. And yet, says Mundel, "There's a complete absence of solid data around what the dimensions of the problem are in Africa."

There's a similar problem with dengue, a very unpleasant virus that's spread by mosquitoes.

"You will speak to a lot of people who say, 'Well there's lots of dengue in Africa.' Well what's the data behind that? There's no data," says Mundel.

This makes it hard to set priorities for health spending, he adds. "How do you plan for the future if you don't even know the state of the present?"

And even when the extent of a health challenge is clear, there's often not enough information on how to solve it. For example, over 150 million kids in poor countries have stunted growth, largely due to malnutrition. But the statistics that could tell us which micronutrients are crucial mostly come from rich countries where conditions are different.

"So the basic elements of what should a kid eat in order to be healthy — we don't know those in the countries that we're working in. We don't have that data," says Mundel.

The data gap is especially noticeable when it comes to statistics on girls and women, and ending the inequality they face is a major focus of the global goals.

Emily Courey Pryor heads Data 2X, a nonprofit that recently did a detailed survey of global statistics on girls and women on everything from health and education to political participation.

"We found that there were 28 glaring gender data gaps on these topics when you look across the globe," she says.

For instance, it's hard to get solid, comparable numbers across all countries on everything from maternal mortality to how well girls are transitioning from school into jobs to what assets women own.

In some cases — domestic violence against women is a classic example — many countries don't consider gathering this data a top concern.

Another issue is that much of the data on women that does exist is based on faulty assumptions. For instance, when employment statistics are gathered through household surveys, the methodology often fails to check whether a homemaker is doing unpaid work on, say, her family farm.

"The data is biased from the get go and this is particularly an issue in the realm of economic participation. So women's work not being fully counted and valued," says Pryor.

As for the huge pool of data we do have — advocates say much of it is difficult to get hold of because it's being hoarded by everyone from U.N. agencies to researchers.

Jody Heymann is dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the affiliated World Policy Analysis Center, which is trying to gather much of this data in one place and make it comparable from country to country. Her dream is to inspire app developers to find a way to get it on smartphones.

"It's exciting because we potentially have the tools now to really hold governments accountable for whether they do what we need them to do," she says. But not without the data.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.