“To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people”
Ahmed Sekou Toure
There continues to be a great deal of dialogue and debate on what the data revolution from the report of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda is all about. However, some have raised concerns that the emerging narrative around opening up data, strengthening national statistics offices or building capacity for e-government may not be revolutionary enough. In thinking through this it becomes clear that revolutions are highly contextual events. The Arab spring happened due to the unique factors of the cultural and social-economic environment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A similar ‘spring’ may not happen in the same way in sub-Sahara Africa due to the peculiarities of the region. Attempting to replicate it is therefore an exercise in futility for those hoping for regime change.
We have just published a think piece on the role of public participation in policy making and how a data revolution could play out in that space. None of the ideas are revolutionary. They have been proposed and piloted in various countries to various extents over time. For instance, in some contexts strengthening and safe guarding the autonomy of the national statistics office may not seem revolutionary to some, in some countries it may be unprecedented (this is not part of the report). And that is okay. Nation states should be allowed, in their efforts to build capable and developmental institutions, to interpret the revolution for themselves.
In sub-Sahara Africa the availability of underlying data used to develop public policy is almost non-existent. Even when citizens are expected to participate in the formulation process and implementation of the policies, the data is still difficult to find. This neuters public participation and is a disservice to open government. Therefore making this detailed data and the accompanying rationale publicly available would be a revolutionary change in both culture and policy on access to information and potentially empower citizens to participate.
The data revolution is an opportunity to mainstream statistics into public discourse on public policy in ways that citizens can understand and engage with. I hope African countries will be willing to put an effort in translating the data revolution into an African revolution. If not, there’s a risk we shall continue singing about a revolution and never actually have one.