Capacity Building, Yes -- But How To Do It?

These days, keynote addresses on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) often end with the call to strengthen the capacity of national data ecosystem actors, in particular those within National Statistical Offices. This is an important message. But how can we do it? Is there eventually a need to profoundly change the way in which we approach capacity?

Challenges in implementing the SDGs, increased data demands from all parts of society, new possibilities stemming from innovations in collecting, disseminating and using data -- all of these developments seem to call for more than just incremental change in the way we build capacities. What could capacity building 4.0 look like? This should be one of the main questions we can hope to answer in Cape Town.

Capacity Development: a changing framework

Capacity development starts from the principle that people are best empowered to realise their full potential when the means of development are sustainable -- home-grown, long-term, and generated and managed collectively by those who stand to benefit. But what exactly do we mean by capacity development? For some, capacity development can be any effort to teach someone to do something, or to do it better. For others, it may be about creating new institutions or strengthening existing ones. Some see capacity development as a focus on education and training, while others take a broad view by improving individual rights, access or freedoms.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa defines capacity development as a process through which individuals, groups and organisations, and societies deploy, adapt, strengthen, and maintain the capabilities to define, plan and achieve their own development objectives on an inclusive, participatory, and sustainable basis.

While the definition may vary, there is wide recognition that the concept of capacity development is currently evolving, which in turn is affecting all aspects of development, from infrastructure, agriculture, education and health to data and statistics. The following table summarises general trends of such change and how this could be applied to the data and statistics sector.

Figure 1: Shifts in the understanding of capacity development (examples)

Source: Adapted from: Capacity Development Strategy, UNECA 2014

The implementation of the SDGs requires a boost in capacity across the board, starting with the data and statistics sector. The goals not only require responsive official statistical systems that are able to measure and track national progress across a much broader spectrum of development outcomes and processes, but also the building of national data ecosystems where data users, such as academia, civil society and business, play an increasing role in data production.

Building the foundations for capacity development

Let's look at one example of how capacity development needs to change in the coming 5 years. At PARIS21, we actively promote the adoption of National Strategies for the Development of Statistics (NSDS) by developing countries. NSDS are owned and developed by countries as national frameworks, processes and products for statistical development aimed at mainstreaming statistics into national policy and planning while also co-ordinating the entire National Statistical System. In the 2016 NSDS Progress Report, more than 50% of IDA countries are currently implementing a strategy, while close to 30% are currently in the process of designing one or awaiting their implementation. For all these countries, the strategies need to be made "SDG fit, compatible and localized" over the next years, which will often require the changing role of National Statistical Offices away from a pure data production entity to more of a service provider, quality approving institution and agency that convenes and connects different actors inside and outside the official systems of users and producers of data. For the countries without a strategy, either because it is expired or absent, extra efforts are needed to understand their specific situation and which approaches for implementation in their national context could work best.

Table 1. NSDS status in IDA countries as of January 2016

UN World Data Forum: Launching Capacity Development 4.0

A fundamental question that the UN World Data Forum will need to address is the question of how we can build capacities and disseminate knowledge in a more comprehensive, inclusive and participatory way. What role can peer-review learning and South-South cooperation play? How can we align international efforts in a more coordinated manner to avoid crowding out of national efforts and overlap? Those and similar questions will be at the centre of the debate on capacity building in Cape Town.

At many recent conferences, we often hear the need for more collaboration and inclusiveness. With participants coming from both the public and private sectors--national statistical offices, multi-lateral institutions, civil society, academia and the private sector--we have a unique opportunity to start developing elements for a roadmap for capacity development 4.0. Strengthening capacities in data and statistics and improving implementation efforts requires the engagement of all actors in the field. Being able to work on these issues together and start building the coalitions needed to push this agenda forward is crucial and the UN World Data Forum is a great place for this to happen.