December brings the 15th anniversary of one of Canada’s best-kept secrets: the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the official and trusted source of internationally comparable data on education, science and culture.
Good information forms the bedrock for appropriate and effective policies. Over the past 15 years, the international development community has come to rely on the good information provided by the UIS to set the standards and targets for data, monitor progress and build the alliances and skills vital for the generation and analysis of good data.
As a result of its work, governments and international organizations have been able to evaluate what is happening in education, science, technology, innovation and culture, and tailor their policies accordingly. On education, evidence from the UIS has helped donors, including the Canadian government, target resources to ensure the greatest impact, and civil society groups have been able to hold governments to account.
As a result of UIS data, the UN system has been able to monitor progress on education over the past 15 years and chart progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015: universal primary education (not achieved); and gender parity in education (achieved across the developing world, with the exception of South Asia).
Last September, world leaders adopted new goals to be achieved by 2030: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UIS is now gathering and crunching the numbers on education, science, culture and communication to track global progress.
The SDGs focus less on the numbers and percentages of people reached and more on the impact on their lives. Take education enrolment, for example. While the overall numbers look impressive, a closer look finds 263 million children and youth out of school worldwide. Look even closer and girls are almost twice as likely as boys to never set foot in a classroom. Such human rights issues would be invisible without the kind of data produced by the UIS. This kind of data is used by Canadian organizations, such as the 60 Million Girls Foundation, to get more support for girls’ education programs.
Because it hosts the UIS, Canada is home to the world’s most comprehensive internationally comparable education database on, for example, girls’ enrolment and completion and projections of global teacher shortages. The UIS has the only global database of internationally comparable indicators on how much countries are investing in research and development. It was the first to have a database on cultural employment, which helps countries measure and strengthen the contribution of their own culture to sustainable development.
There is also direct support from UIS to 200 countries. Many have received support and training to improve the quality and use of data, while national statisticians and line ministries have been trained on international standards to help them produce and use better data.
The UIS is also an example of Canada’s role as a leader within the UN. There are, however, challenges ahead. The SDGs require new and more diverse data than anything that has gone before. On education, for example, it means measuring what children are learning and whether every child has the chance to learn, as well as counting how many children are in school.
It is going to take further considerable effort to gather, analyze and make good use of all the statistics that are needed. The federal government could use this anniversary as an opportunity to champion such an effort. On the global stage, Canada could argue for more and better data at the UN, and at any other international forum charting a course for human development, required to track progress towards the SDGs, particularly data on girls’ education and education for sustainable development – areas that Canada already promotes. Canada is also well placed to contribute in defining global indicators on these issues and their application to all countries.