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No Data IS Data: what existing but untapped disaggregated data tells us about inequalities in vaccination rates in the Global South

19 January 2023

Data is critical. Policymakers cannot tackle the factors that result in people being left behind if they don’t know who those people are and the barriers that they face. In 2015, all UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offered a ‘blueprint’ to ‘improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth’ via 17 goals and objectives. 

Back then, 2030 seemed a long way off. We had 15 years to deliver on promises to ‘Leave No One Behind’ and to ‘Reach those Furthest Behind First’.

But half our time has already elapsed. So perhaps it is a good time to consider whether the SDGs have been the new broom many of us hoped for, a broom we were promised would sweep away ‘inequalities within and among countries’. Eight years later, how much has inequality been reduced? The truthful answer, at least in terms of national inequalities for ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, is that we just don’t know.

The reason we don’t know is that we still lack detailed data looking at inequality linked to these characteristics. The new SDG data regime committed to data that was broken down or disaggregated by ‘age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or other status’ (General Assembly Resolution 68/261). The UN Statistics Division maintains a database of the 231 unique indicators that track the world’s progress towards achieving the SDGs. Yet progress in terms of collecting such data for minorities has been slow (some might even argue, non-existent). 

International organizations can truly seem like oil tankers, unbearably slow to change speed or direction. It is true that collecting data is complex; it takes time to set up surveys and analyze results, but change really must come, and it must come soon if targets and commitments are to be met. 

In No Data IS Data, we analyzed data for routine childhood vaccination in a wide range of countries globally. These vaccinations offer the opportunity to break cycles of poverty that impact children and entire families, with preventable illnesses causing missed education, missed work, lost income, disability and sometimes death. Tragically, our results were not reassuring.

Although internationally recommended default surveys do include questions about ethnicity, religion and language, governments are at liberty either to take these out altogether or to change them to the extent that they are rendered meaningless as far as minorities are concerned. For example, in one survey in Thailand, the language options are simply ‘Thai’ or ‘other’. Lumping all non-Thai speakers together into one homogenous group renders the individual situations of Thailand’s 50 other linguistic groups invisible. 

Only one in three countries in the last two rounds of survey collection reviewed had a question allowing data to be broken down for minorities by ethnicity, religion and language. Even when these questions are asked, it doesn’t mean that the resultant data has been analyzed and published. In just 14 per cent of the surveys, the broken-down data answering such questions was made available to the public.

Because these questions are included by default, it is clear that not collecting this disaggregated data is not a failure or an oversight. It is a deliberate choice. It is a choice to keep some people and their situation uncounted, unnoticed and unseen. And those that are not counted, do not count.

Continuing to not collect the data, as the title of our report suggests, is in itself important data. It tells us that those behind may not be ‘left behind’ as much as ‘pushed behind’. The forces that keep them excluded, poor and unheard are stronger and more active than many would prefer to believe.

Data is an invaluable tool for activists, journalists and civil society to expose inequality and hold governments to account. Reaching those furthest behind will necessitate a radical rethink, but it is possible. The first step is to insist on fully disaggregated data collection and publication. This is a promise the world made to those poorest among us; we have to act now to ensure it does not become a promise unkept.

Health workers Kakali Mondal and Debrani Bagh travel door-to-door to give children a polio vaccine in West Bengal, India. June 2021. Credit: Sudipta Das/Pacific Press/Sipa USA.


Claire Thomas

Co-Executive Director

Minority Rights Group