On Wednesday, following the annual report on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals progress, we followed up with statisticians Francesca Perucci and Yongyi Min for a more in depth understanding on what their statistics mean. Francesca Perucci is the Assistant Director in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division while Yongyi Min is a Chief in the same division, along with being a member of the Sustainable Development Goals Monitoring Section. (Here the video with the press conference at the UN Headquarters)
Although the Sustainable Development Goals were only created in 2015, there have still been incredible developments since. With all countries committing to an agenda to create a truly sustainable world, free of poverty, hunger, and ensuring many more benefits for a healthy and safe life for all, there have been a vast array of increases in life standards worldwide. Yet still, some puzzling statistics remain. After several years of decreasing world hunger, this year it is on the rise again, with 38 million more people undernourished since 2015. On the other hand, data shows that the influx of migration the world is currently undergoing is actually creating a “win-win” situation with both countries of origin and countries of destination benefiting.
In the interview, the pair gave us a richer taste on the benefits of migration, importance of statistics, and more.
In this 2018 report, what do you think was surprising? What was something you didn’t expect to come up?
Yongyi Min: The hunger data was definitely a surprise because for many years while doing the report, we saw a declining trend moving pretty fast over the past more than a decade, and now the trends have reversed and the number of hungry people have increased.
Conflict and wars have always happening, yet hunger was not increasing, even with big crises, like in Africa, Somalia, Sudan, and other places. You also mentioned before the environment is a contributing factor to hunger. So, what has to be done that is not being done?
Francesca Perucci: Well, I think that is the very essence of the 2030 agenda. The fact is that you have to look at all these policy areas in a comprehensive and interrelated way. You have to ensure that the development is sustainable. So you have to ensure economic growth, but at the same time sustainable consumption, and you have to address all the environmental factors that negatively impact food production, etcetera.
The United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement: what effect does this have on the goals? What is the reaction from when a leading country like the United States doesn’t cooperate internationally, like other countries?
F: Well, the rest of the countries remain committed, and to some extent the U.S. is still in the agreement strictly speaking. So, I think the agenda is there and most countries are still committed to the implementation of international tools, instruments, that have been agreed upon, and the fact that countries have endorsed the 2030 agenda three years ago also is clearly a testimony to the fact that they will attach a great importance to really having policies that address sustainable consumption, the environment, climate change, and ensuring economic development and progress for societies at the same time.
A few months ago, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was stressing not to worry about the White House’s lack of commitment to environmental goals and others because cities and states are still committed. He emphasized that America will do what is right, as it is not only the White House that is guiding us. How much can the private sector in the world do to help reach these goals? And do your statistics measure the effect of the interaction with private sectors?
F: Yes. Well, the private sector plays an enormous role, of course, a very very important one at this, and there is also now, in fact even an indicator that measures reporting by companies on staying within certain frameworks of sustainability, and the way they operate. They can contribute, and they can help by creating partnerships between private and public sectors in addressing many of these problems. So certainly yes, it is not only governments, but governments have to ensure that policies are in place.
Even though it has only been a few years, are we where you thought we would be in 2018?
Y: From the report we can see a lot of policies that have been put in place, but the policies will probably take a little bit of time to be effective, and then we will see the changes. I think the beginning years are like a marathon; the first few miles are always the most difficult and then when you gain the momentum, you can speed up the process.
There are some goals here that you both have highlighted where it says progress remains too slow to be on track to meet the targets for 2030. Is there a way to somehow to meet the goal eventually?
F: I think it’s very much what Yongyi was saying. I think in all goals, even where you see progress, you need to ensure that progress is sustainable and it can be accelerated in case of some external factors, like conflicts. But where progress is low, or even in the case of hunger for goal two where we have a setback, there’s still time with the right interventions to pick up, and still achieve what has been agreed, and what countries have committed to with the agenda. It’s a question very much of political commitment and right investments, right policies, and partnerships in many cases with the private sector and other stakeholders. Civic society also plays a very very important role; they have launched a number of initiatives and they do advocacy for the right interventions to be taken. So yes it’s really about people, countries, and people in all countries. Of course the goals are ambitious, but this was something that was agreed by countries knowing that this can be done, and knowing that with the right commitment, this can be achieved.
The rise in migration is often called a crisis, endangering the stability of a country. Your report says migration numbers are growing with millions of more people moving than ever before, but instead you stress that there is a positive aspect of this. What is the positive aspect that makes migrants and refugees a good resource both for the country that takes them and for the country that they left?
Y: The remittance to the receiving countries improves the lives of millions of households and communities, and they invest this money in education and health, and infrastructure and basic services, so this is a definite benefit to the country of origin. But it’s also benefiting the countries of destination. Like in the U.S., where they are receiving a lot of migrants, migrants help improve American science and technology. We see the U.S. always has many migrants in college; a lot of scientists are foreigners. They are not born in this country, but they work here and improve the science and technology of the country. They are adding to cultural diversity, and they also pay taxes and the social security contribution-
So, in countries that are getting old, like Italy, the flags of migrants help pay pensions.
Y: Yes, yes they help pay pensions.
In the last couple of years, the trend has been that politicians who speak against migration get votes. With the credibility from the U.N., how do statistics like these help invert this trend, where you can offer numbers that can help politicians speak well of migration and not feel that they’re going to lose votes?
F: Numbers can certainly help, and in fact now there are new initiatives being launched exactly for that purpose, to increase and improve the data sets that we have; not just to count the numbers of migrants but to understand the impact, to understand the status of migrants, their living conditions, their contributions to society, their needs, etcetera. And that’s tremendously important because it also helps change the perception, and provides the real picture of what migrants represent in all countries (not only referring to the US, I’m speaking in general terms).
And to get this data from your report: you collaborate with other companies, but how is government sharing of credible information? What are the kind of problems you are encountering and how do you resolve them? And what kind of power does the Secretary-General and the U.N. as an institution have today to make countries release the data to help you monitor how the sustainable development goals are progressing?
F: Countries in general follow the fundamental principles of official statistics. Those are principles that have been agreed in a resolution by the General Assembly, and all official national school systems produce data based on those principles to ensure the reliability, the quality, the timeliness of data, but also the fact that data has to be accessible to citizens. Besides the fundamental principles, we also have a sort of a relatively new movement – we call it a movement because there is so much work being done – for open data. And for the first time this year in March 2018, the School Commission, which is the intergovernmental body and technical body of ECOSOC that deals with statistics, they have established a group on open data, to define the practices of what countries and school systems need to do to provide full access to timely, quality, desegregated, reliable data. The concept of open data brings in a lot of different dimensions. Data has to be not just accessible but understandable, easy to read, access, and interpret. It’s all about bringing in different data sets and ensuring that data is interoperable, that you can put them together and use them for many different purposes for all different uses by people and for citizens.
Is there anything that you wanted to talk about, at the press conference or here, that you didn’t have the possibility to, or there was not enough emphasis on?
F: My preference would be to highlight the importance of data, and as you said just a moment ago about migrants and the perception of migrants. In many other policy areas and issues that we deal with in societies, I think data is a very powerful instrument that allows us to have justice, to really help people understand how they can live in peace, and ensure that everybody can participate in development, and can share progress in an equal manner. Data is tremendously important and increasingly there is a recognition that data is important, but still we don’t see the resources that we need to-
The U.N. is doing an incredible job in collecting, finding, and analyzing data, yet they can still do better to market the data and make sure people use it. Maybe you could hire an agency that can advertise these goals and its data. That way, this could penetrate the minds of the people, and change the discourse.
F: The media can help! In fact, we have a U.N. World data forum in October in Dubai – we do that every 2 years – and we have a session on data journalists and the use of data, about the particular use of data in certain forms, like how data is sometimes manipulated or misused. We are trying to address that extensively because we think the media can help bring data to citizens and ordinary people.