Data for risk-informed policymaking in Pakistan

On a more local level, country’s fintech and agritech sectors are already using AI to increase production

Dr Samuel Rizk April 23, 2024
The writer is the Resident Representative of UNDP in Pakistan


The definition of ‘data’ will differ from country to country, context to context and even individual to individual. Even more so, what data is and what it can do changes so rapidly that it can be hard to grasp and to use it to its full potential. Whether we conceive of data as artificial intelligence, pursue a more traditional approach of data-as-surveys, or use technology-heavy methods derived from the use of drones or geospatial mapping — the benefits of using data for evidence-based analysis, policy- and decision-making are undeniable.

It is also important to consider the timeframe which data is assessing, whether it is data for a retrospective review and lessons learned, data for today’s decision-making imperatives, or data for the future (forecasting, early warning, etc). From a development lens, all three timeframes are critical and useful.

With only six years left for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, there is no doubt that we need to collectively improve our practice, our effectiveness, and significantly scale up our ambition. The 2024 UNDP Human Development Report highlights dramatically rising inequalities between the wealthiest nations and the poorer ones, a dynamic that risks becoming permanent and that will be accelerated by the effects of climate change. This is particularly true for Pakistan where the development trajectory has remained modest at best. The Pakistan 2023 SDG Insights Report showed the country to be on track to achieve only 35 out of 169 SDG targets. UNDP’s latest Human Development Index ranking shows Pakistan at 164 out of 192 countries, in the ‘low development’ category.

What’s the way back to a positive development trajectory? As Agenda 2030 approaches its culmination, UNDP is accelerating SDG momentum by using data analytics, innovative trends reporting, data management, and data governance to measure countries’ progress as well as project their needs and opportunities for post-2030 action. While progress of any country is a function of how inclusive, responsive, and forward-thinking its development policies are, these policies will only be as good as the evidence upon which they are built. If Pakistan is to overcome the existing digital divide, and make the benefits of technology equally accessible to all segments of society, an enormous opportunity awaits to boost its human development.

Pakistan’s best example of processing data for development is the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), which has revolutionised e-governance by providing a comprehensive database of citizens’ information. This initiative has facilitated greater inclusivity in government services, enabling more efficient and transparent delivery of public services. On a more local level, the country’s fintech and agritech sectors are already using artificial intelligence to increase production and expand financial access for small-scale farmers.

The opportunities to use data for development are enormous. However, benefits can only be harvested when we overcome our hesitancy to use data to its full potential, while still mitigating potential risks and unintended consequences. For policymakers, this approach is critical given the speed at which developments in the digital and artificial intelligence space are happening, and where data collection, analytical tools, and legislation are unable to keep up.

Over the past one decade, UNDP has partnered with the federal and provincial governments to establish a range of innovative data tools and systems to support Pakistan’s SDGs mainstreaming, localisation, and acceleration efforts. The Multidimensional Poverty Index is now the basis of national efforts aimed at uplifting Pakistan’s least developed districts and regions and bringing them on a par with the rest of the country. Similarly, a first-ever Government-UNDP SDG Investor Map for 2023 served as a dynamic tool to identify a range of market-specific impact investment opportunities for SDG-aligned private sector resources and capital deployment in Pakistan, all at a time of increased fiscal pressures.

Data, if collected, analysed and utilised productively, and ethically, can become a renewable resource to power inclusive growth, innovation, and sustainable development. Can data become the solution to the development challenges we face? Not alone. But data can help us develop solutions based on evidence, and help us refine development interventions along the way, for more insight, impact, and effectiveness. The future of development in Pakistan will clearly be strengthened by digital awareness, digital literacy, and digital inclusion.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2024.

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