Paris in spring is an occasion not to miss, with first signs of green on trees, the scent of blossoms, beautiful light and sunshine occasionally interspersed with rain. So, I was delighted to get an invitation to attend the PARIS21 Board Meeting held in Paris on April 5-6 and, the day before, to help with a seminar. My invitation said I would be an “observer,” meaning no interventions and just to be there and look pretty, which is difficult for me — the no intervention part, that is! Why was it difficult? Well, I have been around PARIS21 since 1999, when it was conceived, and very active in its startup so have a lot of say about it. But, being an observer also has benefits. It gives you more time to really see what is going on, to tweet, and write a blog (this one!), to reflect on what has changed since PARIS21 was set up, what are the good and no so good changes, and the big question: Is investing in data partnership a smart move?
PARIS21 was born in a meeting in November 1999, hosted by the Development Assistant Committee of OECD, UN, World Bank and IMF. The idea was to recommend indicators and articulate measurement challenges facing the International Development Goals, which later were called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). I recall that meeting like it was yesterday with Clare Short, the Secretary of State for UN Department of Development, as the key note speaker. I was very much moved by her speech, hearing someone at her level so passionately talk about the importance of statistics and capacity building for statistics and calling everyone to task to help improve them. She called the event “a meeting with a difference” as it brought policy makers, development specialists, and statisticians together. All participants agreed that we needed a partnership focused on promoting results-based management and the use of better statistics. OECD agreed to host the partnership and World Bank and DFID showed interest in supporting its startup. Over a meal — with Jean-Claude Faure (the DAC Chair), Brian Hammond (head of the DAC indicator group), Tony Williams (DFID), Jan Vandermoortele (UNDP), Eric Swanson (World Bank), and myself around the table — we struggled with what could be a good name. Suggested by Brian, the name “PARIS21 – Partnership in Statistics for the 21st century” won everyone’s vote. The organization was born!
With its goals lined up with the hot topic of the day — to support a culture of Managing for Development Results (MfDR) — PARIS21, very quickly, gained popularity. Its membership grew among development partners and developing countries’ national statistical offices. For donors, the MfDR brought with it great hope that it would truly make a difference in transforming better data and statistics into better development results and improved effectiveness. Positioning PARIS21 within the MfDR agenda was indeed what helped it to gain support from all sides.
From the time PARIS21 was fully set up in 2001 until 2012, it saw increase in demand as well as expansion and changes in its work program. During this time, the secretariat had two managers – Antoine Simonpietri and Abadila Berrou. Antoine was particularly popular and stood out as the first manager of PARIS21 bringing onboard many developing countries and starting up the National Strategies for Development of Statistics (NSDS) — the flagship product of PARIS21 even today. During the first 10 years, beyond NSDS to help countries better plan their statistical systems and align them with overall national development plans, PARIS21 did a lot to build awareness and advocacy for investment in data.
Another strategically important move came in 2004 when PARIS21’s work was aligned with a global action plan on statistics called MAPS. With broad endorsement as a strategic agenda and with the backing of the World Bank’s Trust Fund for Statistical Capacity Building (TFSCB), MAPS was endorsed by the Marrakech meeting on managing for development results, with clear statements of the goals needed to improve the state of development data to face the measurement challenges of MDGs.
The integration of PARIS21 with MAPS (the global strategy for data) and TFSCB (a fund to support what Parsi21 was advocating developing countries needed to do) made sense and led to several successful outcomes also documented in several evaluations. This integration also got PARIS21 closer to the political demand for data to monitor poverty reduction (PRSPs) and HIPCs debt relief programs. This involved projects such as the International Household Survey (IHSN). Born from the implementation of MAPs, IHSN was designed to provide tools and technical assistance to countries to improve their microdata/survey systems, essential data for poverty monitoring.
While in its first 10 years PARIS21 provided many excellent products and services responding to the political and technical agenda, it also had less successful efforts. The one I remember best was a so-called satellite program to promote and develop data on human rights and democratic governance. The program called Metagora eventually failed because it was mainly supported by one or two donors, was largely supply-driven, was not well-articulated in terms of needs, and was not integrated into the work of PARIS21. Another effort that was less than successful involved an annual event of the PARIS21 consortium to bring together users, data producers, and policy makers for exchange of ideas and innovations. This large annual event turned out to be very expensive, taking a lot of time from the small secretariat to put together, and did not meet the expectations. It did not last.
With several trials and errors on how to organize it and who should chair it, one of the critical areas of the PARIS21 operation has been its governing body. The best arrangement has turned out to be to have a relatively large board with rotating members representing regions. More urgent and on-going decisions are addressed by a smaller Executive Committee composed of main donors and stakeholders. Some of the best chairs I have seen have been those who are politically well-positioned and value the role of PARIS21 within the international agenda. One example is Richard Manning, who was the Chairman of DAC, but also co-chair of PARIS21, from 2003-2007. He was a devoted chair who made several high-level political interventions at the Development Committee and at the UN on behalf of PARIS21.
In 2011, with many of the MAPS strategies (such as preparing for the 2010 round of census) under implementation, the Busan Action Plan for Statistics (BAPS) was endorsed at the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Busan, Korea. BAPS continued to provide a well-articulated set of goals for Parsi21 to monitor and implement. This strong linkage helped PARIS21 to focus its work on a set of activities endorsed globally.
In 2012, PARIS21 welcomed a new manager, Johannes Jutting, and subsequently has continued to grow and help developing countries’ statistical systems through an updated NSDS, the IHSN household survey program, training, country and regional workshops, knowledge management (such as PRESS, an annual report on financial support for statistics), and a wide range of task teams on specific issues. With the elaboration of the SDGs and the excitement around the data revolution, PARIS21 has its future work cut out for it. Its work on “A Road Map for a Country-led Data Revolution” is a good start for raising awareness on data innovations around the world and the promising future for public-private partnership on data, as well as providing guidance for countries to realize such benefits.
Financial support from donors for PARIS21 has seen ups and downs. In its early days, PARIS21 benefited from a generous and steady grant from the World Bank. Supplemented by steady grants from DFID and a few other donors, this allowed PARIS21 to have a focused, selective, but highly relevant set of activities. The World Bank’s grant has ended now so PARIS21 is actively fund-raising to make up the difference. It seems to me that some of the new financing is for very specific sector and activities. This may bring focus but could also push PARIS21 slowly to follow the money rather than where real needs are and where it could add special value.
Overall, being at the PARIS21 Board meetings last week, I was hugely impressed by how far PARIS21 has come since its inception almost 17 years ago. Although the level of statistical capacity of developing countries is still below what is required, huge progress has nevertheless been made. Listening to countries talk about the good things they have received from PARIS21 clearly showed how much they all value the role it plays — thanks to its team, its manager, its host (OECD), and all those who have provided financial support.
So, what now? I think PARIS21 is in a good position to take on the next generation of capacity development challenges for developing countries and be a powerful voice for these countries at the political level. As a long-time participant and observer, four suggestions come to mind to frame and advance its important work for the future:
- Keep PARIS21 connected to two strategic agendas. One would be to align with the statistics agenda through BAPS and the new Cape Town Global Action Plan for Statistics. The other would be a more political agenda, perhaps the agenda 2030.
- Upgrade the status of PARIS 21 both within OECD and within the statistics community. After nearly 17 years in operation, PARIS21 has a proven record that deserves recognition. This will give it an extra boost for taking on the upcoming challenges.
- Call on donors to provide steady and untied grants to support the core operations of PARIS21. Key stakeholders need to step forward with formal inputs and proposals.
- Focus PARIS21’s work program on developing countries’ capacity development that are results-based, with focus on data use and impact, and leading to modernized, open, high quality, and independent systems.
I am convinced — after my two days attending the Board meetings this month and from the perspective of 17 years of working with and learning from the experience of PARIS21 — that investing in data is smart, that the returns on that investment are high, and that partnerships like Paris21 are essential to success. It has taken a lot to make it all work. There have been ups and downs, but like everything else in life: no pain no gain. Now, stronger, it is time to move forward vigorously to assist the governments of developing countries to use the power of data and the capacity of their national statistical systems to fully energize sustainable development.
Saying goodbye to beautiful Paris in springtime is hard, but I am leaving with a strong sense of appreciation for the progress made by PARIS21 and delighted to see the many signs of spring in capacity development in countries.
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