Q&A: COVID-19 Means we Must Innovate Data Collection, Especially on Gender

Data is important in ensuring gender equality, and experts say as traditional means of data collection may no longer be possible under the current COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, this provides an opportunity to collect data in more innovative ways. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, May 5 2020 – The current coronavirus pandemic can offer insight into how to shake-up traditional methods of data collection, and might provide an opportunity to do it in more innovative ways, in turn enhancing progress towards gender equality.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and when you look at society’s crisis – whether that’s a health crisis or natural disaster or war – [they] really force us to think about the ways of working and whether or not they’re serving us well as a community,” Susan Papp, Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver, an international organisation advocating around the world for gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women, tells IPS.

The global pandemic has highlighted loopholes and dangers in traditional systems across the world: healthcare access, the economy, tools to address gender violence.

“Because things are moving so rapidly with COVID-19, it shows how important and how reliant we are as a society on data systems. And that our old ways of interacting with data are not sufficient to be able to protect our people, to make sure they are healthy,” she adds. 

Papp shared her thoughts just a few days after United Nations Women released a brief on how to collect data on violence against women and girls (VAWG) under the current circumstances, given heightened cases of domestic violence cases women and girls around the globe are facing. The brief also states that under the current circumstances, traditional means of data collection may no longer be possible.

Meanwhile, access is a huge issue for the collection of data since technology plays a key role in ensuring that information is communicated. In cases of VAWG, use of technology may exacerbate the situation with an abuser. 

These concerns highlight the need for accurate and important data, as well as the challenges posed in trying to attain them. IPS speaks with Papp on the importance of data in ensuring gender equality, as well as the challenges of the current methods being used — and how that can be changed in “innovative” ways. 

Inter Press Service (IPS): Why is accurate data collection important to ensure gender equality? 

Susan Papp (SP): A gender equal world is healthier, wealthier and more productive. We need to be able to have an understanding of the reality of women and girls in order to advance gender equality. We’ve seen that what gets measured has the best chance of getting done. And really reliable and timely gender specific data is crucial to that accountability. 

World leaders can make a lot of promises about creating a more gender equal world but without data you have no way of knowing whether those promises are part of reality. 

Furthermore, you need to be able to have that data to point where the gaps in services are and where the problems exist for girls and women. Because without that, policymakers are shooting in the dark. And you can’t have policies that are ill-informed and don’t portray the whole picture. 

Susan Papp is the Managing Director of Policy and Advocacy at Women Deliver.

IPS: According to Women Deliver, only 13 percent of countries have a gender statistics budget. How could such a budget hold governments accountable in ensuring gender equality?

SP: It’s critical in the treatment of the SDGs that gender statistics are invested in, that statistical offices and divisons are able to collect data disaggregated by sex, with an intersectional lens. So, ideally, they would be starting to think about gender data that would look at questions around sexual orientation and sexual identity as well. 

Right now, there is a tremendous lack of information for non-binary gender identities. So how are they counted and how are their needs and realities reflected? 

Too often, [for] girls women and non-binary individuals, their needs are completely not reflected and in order to understand those needs, you need to have better data system. 

IPS: How does that apply to the current situation?

SP: What we need to do as a community is maybe be a little bit less purist in our approach to data collection methods and use a moment like COVID-19 as an opportunity to really innovate about collecting data in real time. And [to] find ways to verify that data that may not necessarily be as rigorous and as time consuming as the past mechanisms for verifying the data.  

IPS: What would being more innovative entail? 

SP: It’s examples as documented by the World Bank, or Bloomberg’s initiative in New York for contact-tracing, using GPS, credit card data to be able to track where you’ve been, whether or not you may have been in contact with someone who has the virus: that is the future and I think COVID-19 has really been an eye opening moment for us to recognise that the way we’ve been collecting data and information in the past is no longer serving our world well. 

IPS: In that sense, data collection can be conflated with compromising privacy, with women and gender non-binary people being especially vulnerable to it. Is there any conversation on that conflict?    

SP: Absolutely. And you’re starting to see some really good principles being developed and come out around this. 

A lot of the data that’s been collected historically on VAWG had been collected face to face. And now, a lot of that data needs to be collected virtually and leveraged through things like mobile phone platforms, phone hotlines. Some real principles have been set that have been very useful around safety, privacy and confidentiality around women’s responses, doing no harm, making sure that the data collectors have some sensitivity training and that they understand the ethical and safety principles that they need to hold. 

IPS: In terms of collecting data, what would you say is the main factor that poses an obstacle for government and local leaders?

SP: Data can be expensive to collect, and it can be really expensive to analyse. And I think the lack of investment in data is one thing that needs to be resolved. Second, a lot of really amazing data do exist, but the problem may lie in understanding how to access and use that data in a way that’s ethically responsible, in a way that protects the identity of people, so that it’s still useful yet anonymised. 

A lot of the processes, though very brilliant and important work by the U.N., need to be reconsidered. The world is moving at a much more rapid pace than it was before and [we need to think about] how to reconcile the very puristic standard data collection and analysis methods and usability with some of the more emerging needs with open data.

COVID-19: Developing Countries Must Not be Left Behind

We have identified nine misconceptions doing the rounds on social media in Africa and set out to counter them. The purpose of debunking these myths is to provide people with trusted information.

By Lars Hein and Daud Khan
WAGENINGEN, Netherlands / ROME, May 5 2020 – Globalization has been a driver for increased prosperity world-wide, but it has been in reverse in the last years due to the growth of populism in the USA and Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic may well provide further momentum to increasingly national-interest oriented policies in the west.

Nevertheless, a common response to COVID-19 is needed, where rich countries support developing countries in alleviating the impacts on the poor. COVID-19 offers an opportunity to revive collaboration world-wide, but the public and political leaders in North America and Europe need to broaden their perspective on mitigating the pandemic’s impacts.

The last decades have seen the emergence of a highly interlinked world. There has been a massive increase in global trade, travel and tourism and this has brought major benefits to most of the world’s population with incomes rising and poverty dropping.

However, as with all such major trends there have also been losers in the rapid process of globalization. In developed countries, income inequality which had been falling since the Second World War, started rising again. Combined with this was a growing resentment from workers who were unable to shift out of dying industries, such as steel and textiles, where imports from developing countries were better and cheaper.

The COVID-19 pandemic may well be the last nail in the coffin of globalization. Firms in USA and Europe will step away from the long supply chains and just-in-time deliveries that helped drive down costs. All countries will attempt to build up production of “essential goods” including medical supplies and possibly even food items

The globalized system has been increasingly under threat for the past several years, particularly from populist parties working on fears and resentment of those who feel left behind by globalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic may well be the last nail in the coffin of globalization. Firms in USA and Europe will step away from the long supply chains and just-in-time deliveries that helped drive down costs. All countries will attempt to build up production of “essential goods” including medical supplies and possibly even food items.

All this will impact trade, especially from developing countries. At the same time credit and investment flows will be largely focused to helping domestic enterprises in developed countries with little left for flows to developing countries.

This reversal of globalized production chains is bad news for developing countries, coming at a time when the medical emergency responses to COVID-19 are drawing heavily on public and private resources, and lockdowns are hitting output and employment, both in the formal and informal sectors.

While globalization has many faults, it is useful to understand it did allow both developed and developing countries to substantially raise living standards. But much was built on the backs on workers in developing countries.

Many workers, often women, worked for long hours in unhygienic and unsafe factories producing clothing and manufactured components; in Africa, thousands toiled in mines to extract minerals needed for production of laptops and smartphones.

These workers were the silent victims of globalization who only came to the news when there was a fire in a garments factory or the collapse of a mine shaft. They are better off – many above the poverty line – but it remains a grim existence with the risk that even a small shock will send them spiraling back into poverty and destitution.

With the pandemic likely to lead to severe recession in the USA and Europe, much Government attention will turn to supporting those affected in their own countries and within the EU. This will certainly be the case in the USA where the coming presidential election will find the Republicans beating the drum of America First.

But there is likely to be similar rhetoric across Europe. Many have learned from their handling of the refugee/immigration issue that solidarity does not win votes. The economic impacts of COVID-19 are particularly high in Southern European countries.

In the coming year, a lot of the political energy in the EU will be wasted on a debate on how to balance support for dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 and pointless transnational funding of outdated institutional and economic models. Despite this political turbulence, efforts to alleviate the economic impact of crisis in OECD countries will take off. These will include increasing credit to businesses and the self-employed, delaying tax collection and ensuring basic income support.

However, in the emergency, there is hardly any mention in the policy and public debate of the impacts of COVID-19 in developing countries, let alone the economic impacts on the poor in these countries. But turning the backs on developing countries will be an epochal mistake for the USA and Europe for moral, economic and political reasons.

It is quickly becoming clear that the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 in developing countries will stretch far beyond the immediate medical and social costs. Currently, the WHO is reporting some 255,000 deaths from COVID-19 globally, and more than 3.6 million confirmed cases.

These numbers are very likely to underreport cases and fatalities in developing countries, where COVID-19 is rapidly spreading, but medical and testing equipment are in short supply. However, the secondary impacts may well go far beyond these primary effects. Hundreds of millions of people, many of who work in the small scale services sector will suddenly find themselves without jobs.

Traditionally, many of these people relied on informal networks in time of stress and hardship. However, safety nets that work through family and friends are unlikely to be sufficient: many relatives that could otherwise provide support will also have lost their job.

Family relations may be under strain from the lock-down: a doubling of domestic violence has been reported as a consequence of people’s confinement to their houses and neighborhoods in combination with job losses – putting further strain on social networks. Many of the poor will lose an important part of their savings to cope with the current crisis, affecting all phases of life including schooling, marriage and pensions.

Throughout developing countries, government, NGOs and private charities are rapidly gearing up to meet the immediate food and medical needs of the poorest and vulnerable sections of the population. But what is needed goes beyond the life-saving relief and survival support that is currently being offered.

Governments in developing countries will soon need to start to think about what are the key next steps to minimize damage to their economies and societies. In spite of the current crisis, it is crucial that OECD countries reach out to these governments and offer their support: the challenges to rebuild institutions and economies will exceed the capacities of many developing countries.

The support needed is diverse. Clearly, in the short term there is a need for medical assistance and, in the poorest countries, food support. This is immediately to be followed by debt relief – government and companies need to be able to survive the crisis so that economies can be built up quickly when COVID-19 has started receding.

A main priority for the poor in developing countries relates to reentering the labor market. In the short term, increased competition for jobs can be expected, potentially affecting pay levels. In addition, there is a need to rebuild financial buffers for events such as funerals, weddings and sickness, and for old age; ensure the continuation of education opportunities; address domestic violence, and sustain the psychological health of those affected by COVID-19 or its indirect impacts.

These responses would need to involve a broad range of national and multinational bodies including the IMF and UN agencies, NGOs and development aid agencies. Given the complexity and scope of the task, substantial funding and careful planning and coordination would be required. Also the private sector should take its responsibility. Potentially debt relief for companies could be made conditional on assisting employees coping with COVID-19 impacts.

Unfortunately, there is as yet very little attention in the West for mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 in developing countries. There is very little if any debate on how developing countries can be assisted in dealing with the various impacts of COVID-19.

Nevertheless, a slow response will only exacerbate the economic and social aftermath of the crisis in these countries. We are at a turning point: poverty reduction, pandemics, climate change and other global challenges require immediate and coordinated responses.

The COVID-19 crisis offers a choice: rebuilding global collaboration based on shared interests, education, respect and support for those in need, or an increasing focus on own short-term interests that will only lead to building up the next crisis and reduce capacities to cope.

Hence, we call for an urgent start of the debate, in particular in the West, on the various efforts needed to deal with COVID-19 focusing on those that need this support the most, i.e. the poor in developing countries.


Lars Hein is professor in environmental systems analysis at Wageningen University, the Netherlands. He worked in over 30 developing countries as UN staff and while employed in the private sector.

Daud Khan is a former senior United Nations official who now lives between Italy and Pakistan. He read Economics at the London School of Economics and Oxford University where he was a Rhodes scholar. Khan holds a degree in Environmental Management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology.


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