Not all data is created equal: the case for individual-level, gender-sensitive, multidimensional poverty data to support an inclusive COVID recovery.

As the fallout from the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic comes into sharper relief economists, development experts and women’s rights advocates are highlighting that work to reduce inequalities and progress women’s rights over the past 25 years is being rapidly undone.

As Clare Melamed and Francesca Perucci underlined recently, COVID-19 has confirmed that the presence or absence of data is truly a life or death issue.

But not all data is equal. When individuals and groups most likely to be affected by a crisis are invisible in data, their circumstances and priorities will not be part of the evidence shaping action. This is a particular challenge in the Pacific region. As the World Bank noted earlier this year:

With the Pacific Islands covering an estimated 640 inhabited islands spread over an area equal to 15% of the globe’s surface, the challenge of gathering accurate, timely and relevant data is immense. The lack of quality data – particularly from some of the region’s most remote locations – remains a critical roadblock to the region’s understanding of poverty, welfare and social developments.

Pacific Island countries have largely managed to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19 to date, but the effects of the pandemic and responses to it have devastated livelihoods and exacerbated existing inequalities including those experienced by diverse women and girls.

Ensuring that economic recovery efforts in the Pacific effectively respond to, and improve, the circumstances of those experiencing immediate hardship and tackle systemic barriers is hampered by significant data gaps that limit insights into who is affected, in what ways.

The International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) launched Equality Insights (formerly the Individual Deprivation Measure) this year, to improve the availability of individual-level, gender-sensitive, multidimensional poverty data, at a time when gender data is most crucial. The survey and tool, underpinned by 12 years of research and development, provides data about 15 key dimensions of life. This overcomes the limitations of a narrow focus on monetary poverty, when a wider range of economic and social factors keep people poor. Measuring multiple aspects of one person’s life also helps reveal the inter-relationships between deprivations, supporting priority setting.

Equality Insights also addresses the problem of interviewing one household member as a proxy for everyone else. Increasingly, this is recognised as a flawed assumption that obscures differences inside a household. Economist Ravi Kanbur estimates that around one-third of global inequality lies within households, and so is missed by household-level measurement. This means global poverty and inequality are routinely underestimated by around one third, and the circumstances of vulnerable individuals hidden.

The most recent Equality Insights survey was undertaken between February and April 2020 in the Solomon Islands. The data, collected at the same time that the pandemic was spreading globally, show that men and women have a different ability to act on the steps required to prevent virus spread, such as handwashing, and maintaining access to information. They also reveal important differences between women and men, and the influence of age, disability and location, on a broad range of economic and social indicators:

Economic circumstances
  • 26 percent of women owned the dwelling in which the interview took place alone, compared to 74 percent of men
  • Men were more likely to own assets relevant to participating in business activities, such as a mobile phone, computer, internet connection, and general business equipment. Men were also more likely to own a radio, an important asset for accessing public information.
  • More men than women have sole decision-making power over household finances, large purchases, duration of their work, duration of their study, and social commitments. More women than men make the sole decisions on everyday purchases, and child-rearing.
Time use
  • Women overall spent more time on unpaid work and care than men, regardless of paid work status.
  • A significantly higher proportion of men (33.7%) compared to women (11.9%) were eligible for work-related contributions to social security, or benefited from paid annual or sick leave, reflecting gender disparity in work patterns and differences in the protections offered in the formal, compared with the informal, sector.
Resilience to shocks
  • Women who had experienced a shock were more likely to also experience severe food insecurity (32%) than women who had not (22%). The difference was smaller for men, with 34 percent of those who had experienced a shock also experiencing severe food insecurity, compared to 28 percent of those who had not experienced a shock.
  • Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of shocks for people in the Solomon Islands. Understanding the relationships between food security, gender and other dimensions of life is vital for enhancing capacities needed for long-term resilience.

These examples point to the value of individual-level, gender-sensitive, multidimensional poverty data for supporting effective, inclusive responses. This type of data is also vital for monitoring progress on the broader sustainable development agenda. It needs to be the norm.

There are real risks in relying on data that hides individuals and differences between them – including extending the very problems seeking redress. Recognising the limits of household-level data can help mitigate risks. To reduce risks, we need to collect data about poverty and inequality that is multidimensional and can be disaggregated. Poverty data that makes the individuals experiencing it invisible is not adequate. We must shift expectations of data adequacy.

The 2020 Virtual UN World Data Forum (19-21 October) provides a critical opportunity to revisit some key themes from the previous Forum in the sharp light of COVID-19 – the relationship between the availability of disaggregated data, inclusion, and trust in data; and innovations in household surveys. Data that can reveal intersecting inequalities will support recovery efforts that are effective and equitable.

Improving the evidence base available to decision makers is not a luxury or a second order priority, to be addressed ‘later, after the pandemic.’ Without better data our roadmaps to recovery risk leading us off-course.