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Data insights from the bottom of the pyramid

Claire Melamed
Data gaps and inaccuracies are making problems in the poorest areas of the world invisible. It's time to raise the information bar

Three years ago, I was sitting jet lagged in a conference room in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo. Around the table were 30 people like me, mostly wearing suits, all well-off, and all talking about poverty.

The topic of the meeting was what priorities the world, in the form of the United Nations, should set itself to end global poverty. And no one in the room had the first idea how poor people themselves would actually answer that question.

So after the meeting was over, eating noodles in downtown Tokyo, a friend and I sketched out the idea for a global survey that would ask people a very simple question: ‘what is most important for you and your family’, and allow poor people’s priorities to be brought directly into rooms like that one, where decisions are made.

MY World

Seven million people – that’s one in every thousand people on Earth – have now answered that question. MY World’, as we called it, has caught the imagination of hundreds of organisations which have taken the survey out to farmers in Nigeria, to refugee camps in Rwanda, to university students in Mexico, to Dalit villages in India, to primary schools in China and asked people to say what is most important to them. Their answers have been brought into negotiating rooms in New York, in Liberia, in Indonesia and in London – wherever people have been meeting to discuss global priorities for ending poverty. 

Together, the team behind the MY World survey has given people whose views were invisible a presence in global negotiations. This is an amazing achievement by many, many people, and my role in it is probably the thing I’m proudest of in my career so far. But MY World is one small drop in the ocean of invisibility which threatens to drown the poorest people on the planet. 

Rough estimates

It’s not only people’s priorities for change that are unknown. Most of the world’s poorest people are uncounted in other, even more fundamental, ways – no one apart from their own families and communities knows when they are born, what their lives are like, or how they die. 

So governments, NGOs, and international organisations are flying blind. If governments don’t know what diseases people are dying from, how can they run a health service to cure those diseases? If they don’t know where children are, how can they run schools for them? 

At the most basic level, we don’t even know how many people we’re talking about. The World Bank estimates that there are about a billion people in the world living on less than $1.25 a day. But ‘estimates’ is the key word – we don’t know, and the numbers can and do change dramatically when new estimates are made.

Lack of information might not seem like a big issue, given the daily catastrophes of the world. But it’s only when we know about the catastrophes, and the reality of the daily hardships and humiliations of poverty, that the right actions can be taken. Data is power. It’s the moment to make the invisible visible.

Claire Melamed is the Director of the Poverty and Inequality Programme at The Overseas Development Institute and is currently working on the Data Revolution. Read her Libertine100 profile here. Image credit: CC Eric Fischer

If governments don't know what diseases people are dying from, how can they run a health service to cure those diseases?