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Delivering quality statistics for development: 5 things to know

14 December 2023

Building public trust in official statistics requires that they be produced in an objective, transparent and timely manner. But how?

© Shutterstock/Marco Alhelm | A herdsman in Oruro, Bolivia.

In a world of growing crises and uncertainty, high-quality and reliable statistics are all the more important, underpinning the work of international organizations – such as UNCTAD – as a credible source of policy advice and research data.

“Development requires direction and direction requires goals, which in turn necessitates statistics,” says UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan.

“Official statistics on trade, investment, finance and technology play a vital role in informing truly global and collective efforts towards inclusive and sustainable development.”

Ensuring statistical excellence is part of UNCTAD’s broader efforts to implement the wide-ranging mandates set out by UN member states in the landmark Bridgetown Covenant.

For decades, major statistical output – such as the UNCTAD Handbook of Statistics series and UNCTADstat data centre – make internationally comparable data sets freely available to governments, academia, businesses, journalists and civil society organizations, informing research, public debates and evidence-based decision-making.

Guiding UNCTAD’s statistical work is the UN’s Principles Governing International Statistical Activities, and its own Statistics Quality Assurance Framework (SQAF) which was updated in early 2023.

So, what are the main principles outlined in the framework? How does it work in practice?

Here are five things you need to know.

1. What are the key pointers from SQAF?

The refreshed SQAF addresses three areas of statistical quality: institutional, output and process.

These dimensions encompass various components and indicators, contributing to the overall quality of statistics produced by UNCTAD.

The framework underscores key components such as relevance, accuracy, timeliness, accessibility, coherence and transparency.

It also includes a set of definitions and guidelines, a quality governance and assessment checklist, and an improvement programme for practical use.

2. How much does transparency and independence matter?

The SQAF highlights the importance of producing statistics in an objective, transparent and professionally independent manner.

It ensures that all methods and outputs are determined based on statistical considerations, free from external pressure – and that statistical reports and press releases remain objective and impartial.

3. How about ongoing improvements?

The SQAF identifies a range of quality performance indicators (QPIs), which can be used in internal self-assessment reviews to benchmark UNCTAD’s progress towards implementing the framework.

The framework encourages all UNCTAD teams tasked with compiling and disseminating statistics to conduct a self-assessment every three years.

These assessments, overseen by the UNCTAD Secretary-General, will help identify areas of improvement and corresponding action plans.

The QPIs can also be used for peer reviews outside of UNCTAD.

4. How does SQAF apply to other UN agencies?

Good news: UNCTAD’s SQAF is customizable for flexibility and effectiveness.

The framework at the outset introduced a common understanding of the quality dimensions and assurance for all agencies comprising the UN statistical system.

But knowing that there’s hardly a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s designed to be adaptable.

The SQAF provides a generic framework, which can be customized to suit the specific circumstances and requirements of any agency within the UN family.

5. What difference has it made?

One example of the SQAF in action is UNCTAD’s recent project to measure the cost of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The work filled data gaps, helping 90 countries – including 48 developing economies – understand how much they need to spend and how best to allocate financial resources.

It focused on six transformative “pathways” for sustainable development. It also estimated the costs of achieving gender equality for certain SDG indicators.

The analysis helped identify synergies by showing how spending in one area can also boost results in others and how combined spending could fast-track progress towards the SDGs.

This means economies with limited resources don't have to stretch every dollar to cover every goal. By capitalizing on synergies, countries can make the most of their resources and bring the 2030 Agenda within reach.