How data could save the SDGs: Three approaches to ending extreme poverty

We suggest three strategies to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals: increased data sources, more innovative methodologies, and investment in local level research.

The likelihood of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is rapidly diminishing. That’s according to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023: Special Edition, which warns that the shared promise by every country to work together to secure the rights and well-being of everyone on our planet, is ‘in peril’.

The report gives a gloomy outlook for 140 targets (those of the total 169 targets for which data was available) evaluated under the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In his introduction, LI Junhua (Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs) attributes this at least in part to the ‘age of polycrisis’, which includes the impacts of a weak global economy, climate change, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic.

And while the lack of progress captured in the report is universal, the people suffering the most – due to these many global challenges – are inevitably the poorest and most vulnerable.

The report is a clarion call for governments and policy makers, and its message is clear: We must act now and accelerate the implementation of evidenced policy if the SDGs are to get back on track and create meaningful change by 2030.

The SDG Summit taking place 18-19 September will be a critical opportunity for world leaders to reverse the concerning trends. In this blog, we outline three approaches that we believe could help.

What does the report say about extreme poverty?

Around half of the 140 SDG targets measured are described in the report as ‘weak or inefficient’ showing moderate or severe deviations from the desired trajectory. For more than 30 per cent of the targets, including those concerning poverty, no progress is reported at all – and in some cases, actual regression since 2015 is noted.

Reasons given for the end of a downward trend in extreme poverty include climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has inflated the costs of food and energy and the cost of access to finance.

Naturally, Covid-19 is understood to have had a significant impact, interrupting three decades of progress in reducing extreme poverty (although a closer look at poverty trends shows that there’s more to the story, and progress in poverty reduction was already slowing before the pandemic hit). In fact, in 2020, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose to 724 million, surpassing the pre-pandemic projection by 90 million. Recovery from the pandemic has been slow.

Furthermore, estimates by our Data & Evidence to End Extreme Poverty programme (DEEP) suggest that the combined crises will have led to an additional 75 million to 95 million people living in extreme poverty in 2022, compared to pre-pandemic projections – potentially making 2022 the second-worst year in terms of progress made in reducing extreme poverty this century, only behind 2020.

If left unaddressed, around 575 million people – around 7 per cent of the global population – will remain trapped in extreme poverty by 2030. Just one third of countries will meet their target to halve national poverty levels.

Three approaches for course correcting targets to end extreme poverty

The report implores that the upcoming SDG Summit in September be used to signal a genuine turning point. It’s a critical opportunity for world leaders to come together to advance ‘concrete, integrated and targeted’ policies and actions that will deliver a rescue plan for people and the planet.

Here are three approaches that could help get SDGs related to extreme poverty back on track.

1. More data sources

Traditional approaches to poverty measurement rely on in-person household surveys and census data. But these can provide outdated information, unavailable at the right geographical level, or static, leaving a data gap.

The data revolution offers data sources that can complement more traditional means of poverty measurement to provide better evidence. Encouragingly, the report notes how household surveys are now embracing modern technologies and new approaches, such as using telephone and web data collection methods, to make them more efficient and inclusive. Other non-traditional data sources such as administrative records, satellite imagery, and citizen-generated data are also helping to bridge data gaps.

You can read more on the data revolution, including the promising avenue provided by data sandwiches, here.

‘Big Data’ may also change the way we measure poverty and inequality to make monitoring more effective for policy-makers, and is one of DEEP’s main focuses over the coming years.

2. Innovative methodologies

Ending poverty in all its forms by 2030 means we need to implement efficient poverty reduction and prevention strategies. These strategies need to be based on an understanding of who is poor, the nature of poverty, how the profile of those living in poverty changes over time, and who is at risk of falling into poverty.

Normally, it’s only possible to investigate changes over time with longitudinal or panel data. But in many cases, these are not available or suffer from respondent attrition and small sample sizes.

Innovative new methodologies, like the synthetic panel method, can help researchers in the absence of panel data. It provides an approach to assessing poverty dynamics at a fraction of the cost of panel-based approaches, and often more frequently than real panel analysis.

This method has enabled researchers to develop a detailed picture of poverty dynamics in Tanzania, and revealed more about the factors associated with poverty vulnerability and mobility.

Researchers have also used the synthetic panel analysis to generate in-depth insights into poverty mobility and vulnerability in other DEEP focus regions like Ethiopia and Mozambique.

3. Local level research in multidimensional poverty

We believe there is a need for local-level research in all of DEEP’s focus countries.

As one example, a crucial piece of research shared by an Indian think tank earlier this year could aid our understanding of extreme poverty drivers and patterns in the country. NITI Aayog have been reviewing the trends in the Multidimensional Poverty Index between 2015-2021. Here’s their progress review, which we developed in partnership with the Human Development Initiative and UNDP.

The granular data presented in the report will not only allow policymakers, State Governments, and district officials to monitor progress, but also empower them to understand the extent, source, and complexity of deprivations among those who remain in multidimensional poverty.

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam and the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, have been working on a village-level study to understand the economic trajectories of villages and urban neighbourhoods. These local-level surveys and related studies could act as key policy tools for policymakers and government bodies on a State and district level to make sure public resources are directed to where they can have the biggest impact.

Conclusion: The need for collective action

While the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023: Special Edition is a wake-up call, it’s not without hope. Encouraging developments are reported: 133 countries met the SDG target on under-5 mortality by 2021, with 13 more anticipated to do the same by 2030. Meanwhile, access to electricity and the internet is increasing, creating a more connected global population.

All these successes were made possible through collective action. As we approach the September SDG Summit, we urge policy makers and governments to come together and focus efforts on using data and evidence to get all targets to end extreme poverty back on track.

DEEP is a consortium of the Universities of Cornell, Copenhagen, and Southampton led by us at Oxford Policy Management, in partnership with the World Bank’s Development Data Group and funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

Area of expertise