My maternal grandfather passed away peacefully on March 11, 2021. It is always a sad thing to lose a loved one and we grieved the death of our Baba, but he had lived a full life, raised extraordinary children, contributed deeply to his community, and was ready to move on when he left us.
I do not raise the issue of Baba’s passing to further my family’s mourning but rather because of a curious fact surrounding his death: no one knew his exact age. People say he was 105 years old and that feels right based on the age of his children and the stories he told about pre-independence Nigeria and of his youth – and how those stories matched recorded history from the 1920s and 1930s. But the uncertainty about the exact date of Baba’s birth is telling; it is emblematic of the data shortcomings in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
This lack of data is troublesome in several ways. It severely limits our ability to fully analyse current conditions and livelihood challenges; compare ourselves to other regions that are facing similar development problems; measure our progress against goals so that we can take corrective action quickly when needed; and, importantly, provide critical services to people even in the most outlying areas.
In an initial post from March 2021, I laid out the three planning components that I believed were essential to fast-tracking development in the SSA region – data, techniques and people. These planning components are not outcomes themselves; instead, the results we strive for are nicely encapsulated in UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which cover healthcare, hunger, education, jobs, fair wages, economic growth and the environment, among other critical dimensions. But the three planning components are essential to achieving the outcomes. In this post, I offer ideas for rapidly expanding our data, with an underutilized resource at the heart of my recommendations: religious centres.
The Africa that Baba grew up in prioritized the spoken over the written word. And the beauty and impact of the spoken word is evident still in the poetry of Titilope Sonuga or Tobechukwu Dubem Nwigwe, who tell stories about our history and ongoing shared experience that are educational and touch our emotions. Clearly, we don’t want to lose the gift of the spoken word. But for SSA today and its people, so much depends on what is written down.
For example, consider the issue of verified identity. Fewer than 50% of children born in SSA have had their births registered, according to the World Bank. Unlisted on official rolls, these children are cut off from equitably accessing the healthcare, education, and other social services that they are otherwise entitled to. At the same time, government planners are hindered from adequately measuring the composition and demographic attributes of residents, and often are compelled to set policy based on judgement versus hard evidence.
Given the benefits of registering names, dates of life events, and other types of data – and the fact that sub-Saharan Africans are as eager as anyone else to utilize government services if they are inexpensive and convenient to access – we can assume that the dearth of adequate records is in part because providing data is difficult or too costly. We can improve convenience by increasing the number of data aggregation points and bringing them closer to people. And we can do this ‘cheaply’ by leveraging existing resources. Which is where religious centres can play a significant role.
Three steps could enable advancement of this data gathering plan: Expand; Digitize; Incentivize.
A good deal of data is collected today in SSA in formal aggregation points, such as hospitals and schools, but there are too few of these across the region. Using hospital beds per person as a proxy for the number of healthcare facilities and pupil-teacher ratio as a proxy for the number of education facilities (assuming that the size of the instructor pool is determined by the prevalence of schools), SSA is well behind most other regions of the world. On the other hand, religious centres are far more abundant. For instance, in the United States, there are about 380,000 churches serving roughly 230 million Christians – or 1.7 churches per 1000 followers – according to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal. By contrast, in Nigeria there are estimated 24,000 Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) houses of worship for an estimated 5 million worshippers (4.8 churches per 1,000 followers), according to a report funded by the Pulitzer Center found. Similar ratios are likely for other faiths and sects in Nigeria.
Spread out so broadly across the SSA population and routinely interacting with many residents once a week or even more, these places of worship would be extremely convenient venues for people to provide information for government data rolls. Note that I am not suggesting that we reduce efforts to increase the number and distribution of formal aggregation points, such as schools and hospitals. They offer many benefits over and above data collection. I only recommend that we broaden our data gathering sources to include religious centres and other informal aggregation facilities that are more plentiful among the region’s population.
Frequently, basic data gathered at formal aggregation points is input in written formats and stored on paper. Two problems with this: first, manual data collection is error prone both at the collection and at utilization points; second, since this data is also often aggregated in physical locations, it is difficult for third parties – for instance, government planners – to access and make good use of.
As we expand the net of data aggregation to religious centres, we should also leverage digital tools to improve the quality of data collected and reduce the time required to aggregate it. To start with, we should build standard digital input forms that are used at both informal and formal aggregation points. Smart phones are proliferating across the region and it would be relatively straightforward to design standard forms to collect base biographical and biometric data, such as fingerprints and facial images, on these devices. These digital forms could then be transferred into computer systems at the religious centres and instantly aggregated to the cloud, where they can be quickly verified and utilized by local and government agencies and other organizations as needed.
Formal aggregation points, such as health and education centres, are mostly already required to collect vital information by laws and regulations. And many of them would welcome collecting data with digital forms. Handheld input devices at the reception area of a hospital to immediately capture patient data is easier than managing the many paper forms, pens and pencils, folders, shelves and file drawers that are currently involved in acquiring and storing patient data today.
Informal aggregation points such as religious centres may not be so eager to take on the added tasks and digitization efforts required to be data collectors. More than likely, new laws will be needed to mandate participation. And to increase compliance, incentives may also be necessary. For instance, in some SSA nations, such as Nigeria, where religious centres are granted non-profit status and along with it financial and other benefits, taking part in data aggregation could be a requirement for receiving or retaining this standing. Other possible incentives include grants to religious centres to support community-building efforts, such as food banks, job fairs and clothing drives. And religious centres that collect data may also enjoy more direct and efficient communications lines to local and federal governments.
Recall that our aspiration is to build up our data quickly. Religious centres leveraging digital forms and cloud aggregation can help us achieve this goal and I believe that developing and implementing a programme to support this data aggregation drive could also be accomplished rapidly. Spotify, the global audio streaming service with hundreds of millions of monthly active users, built its first applications prototype in four months. With the right leadership, expertise, and programme governance, there is no reason why a programme in sub-Saharan Africa to improve data aggregation cannot be developed, piloted and fully deployed within three years, or about 10 times the time it took Spotify to get its first product out.
Decentralizing the collection of identity data will not be without risks, including potential consumer privacy lapses that arise from improper collection, compilation, and dissemination at the aggregation points. Such threats to privacy would need to be adequately debated and mitigated as best as possible before we expand the data aggregation net to include religious centres. Adequate sensitization and training should be required for anyone managing and working at aggregation points to minimize these risks. Policies built into digital and manual processes to provide privacy safeguards as well as penalties for anyone intentionally mishandling data would need to be considered too.
I do believe though that the potential of decentralized data collection at religious centres to quickly close the existing troubling data gaps makes it worth a try, even with the inherent risks. Do you agree with this risk-reward trade-off? More generally, do you agree with leveraging religious centres as a pragmatic way to close our data gaps quickly?