Statistics development in Somalia: Challenges and opportunities in a complex environment

Sharmarke Farah

As Somalia endeavors to recover, reconstruct, and redevelop after decades of conflict and civil war, it faces an unprecedented need for better data and statistics.

Sharmarke Farah, Director-General of the Somalia National Bureau of Statistics, speaks in Mogadishu at the launch of the 2019 Labour Force Survey in Somalia. Photo by Somalia National Bureau of Statistics, used with permission.

After a year and a half of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance and unprecedented need and demand for data. These introductory words from the Data Manifesto of the Royal Statistical Society put it aptly: “What steam was to the 19th century, and oil has been to the 20th, data is to the 21st. It’s the driver of prosperity, the revolutionary resource that is transforming the nature of social and economic activity, the capability that differentiates successful from unsuccessful societies.”

As Somalia endeavors to recover, reconstruct, and redevelop after decades of conflict and civil war, public expectations abound—not least for the creation of a better future for the citizens of Somalia through improved service delivery in education, health, housing, food, water, employment, and security. To meet these expectations, the government designed a National Development Plan 2020-2024 (the 9th National Plan since 1960), intended as an instrument to deliver much-needed socio-economic transformation for the Somali people.

But for the team working on the development of the plan, one of the most frustrating aspects of the process was the dearth of data available to policy makers for baseline and planning. More infuriating was the paradox that, while data is often over-collected and fiercely competed for in Somalia, getting access to and coordinating efforts on producing transparent data remains elusive. Clearly, something is amiss.

The extent of this data plight is detailed in a recent independent study, “The political economy of aid data procurement and analysis in Somalia” by Hagmann et al., as well as a policy brief based on the analysis, Who owns data in Somalia? Ending the country’s privatized knowledge economy, by Wasuge et al.

The study by Hagmann et al. reveals a broken system that is out of control. Scores of donor and aid agencies operating in Somalia lacked and needed data for planning (baseline and evaluations) and accountability (third-party monitoring) purposes. But, as with most initiatives that were prompted by an urgent need and started off with the best of intentions, in the absence of regulation, they morphed into uncontrolled practices that undermined the very purposes they were meant to serve to the public.

In the case of data collection in Somalia, the study describes the nature of the cut-throat “aid data business” and identifies number of thorny issues, including “continuous replication and duplication of aid data” leading to exacerbating “fatigue and complaints” among respondents. Privacy concerns also abound around the extensive collection and storage of sensitive personal data, including pictures, phone numbers, and fingerprints. But even more troubling are the distorted power dynamics that emerge, putting Somalis in the bottom of the heap and leaving them with “no decision-making power or ownership” over data.

According to the study, aid agencies treat “information as power,” “jealously guard aid information,” and “keep tight control of their data.” This contrasts with the mandate of official statistics to treat datasets as public goods, as they satisfy the properties of non-rivalry and non-excludability (goods are available to all citizens). Moreover, accessibility issues were found to create information asymmetry, where selected donors, aid agencies and private firms know more than the government they are supposed to support, and which is ultimately responsible for acting to improve the situation of its citizens.

The study’s conclusions are reinforced by research AidData has conducted into how leaders use data and statistics and how national statistical offices (NSOs) and donors can increase data use. In AidData’s report on Decoding Data Use, a survey of 3,000 leaders in developing countries found that these leaders used national statistics data most frequently and considered it to be the most helpful source of development data. Yet the growing demand for official statistics has not been met with a corresponding increase in the capacity of countries to deliver them—but there are paths forward to close the capacity gap, as outlined in AidData’s Counting on Statistics report.  

This is the situation in Somalia; despite the large outpouring of resources put into collecting data, Somalia ranks last or near last in Africa in terms of reliable statistical indicators and data products. Collected data often does not make it into official statistics, because the National Statistics Agency is not involved. The study by Hagmann et al. makes sensible recommendations to improve the situation.

It’s important to note from the outset that the current situation arose due to government failure and decades of international aid institutions doing their best to fill a much-needed vacuum. For the government to fully reassume its role and regulate the sector is a challenge that will take time. That said, what is the government agency charged with country’s data doing to address these enormous issues?

Since the inception of the newly independent Somali National Bureau of Statistics (SNBS) via an amended law in 2020, the SNBS has designed and operationalized a National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS, based on the Paris 21 guidelines). This NSDS is a holistic framework for addressing data limitations, mobilizing and prioritizing the use of resources, and finally integrating statistics within national policy, planning, and budget processes.

The SNBS has also set for itself the ambition of becoming a centre of excellence in Africa within the next 5-10 years and a model for fragile states, through a commitment to transparency, accountability, and leveraging leapfrog advances in technology.

However, a necessary catalyst to achieve these objectives will be the cooperation of international partners, humanitarian and development data producers, and data users. In line with the amended statistics act, international partners working in Somalia on data collection must be transparent and accountable to the Somali government. Importantly, the law is strengthened by the international guiding principle for accountability, transparency, and cooperation, the Aid Effectiveness Declarations, which in successive venues (Paris, Accra, and lastly Busan) over the past two decades have underscored the virtues and importance of government ownership and agency, particularly in fragile contexts.

While challenges in Somalia’s data sector remain, the SNBS, on behalf of the government, has marked a milestone of progress recently by signing an agreement with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on the transfer of the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit and the Somalia Water and Land Information Management to SNBS management. Under the amended Statistics Act and with guidance from its independent board, the SNBS will, in the coming weeks and months, bring more coordination reforms and regulations to improve the situation of statistics and data collection within Somalia.

Sharmarke Farah is the Director-General of the Somalia National Bureau of Statistics and the former Principal Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister of Somalia.