Using a pen and paper gives the poorest a say on post-2015 development goals

Note: This is an article originally posted on the ODI website by Claire Melamed and Paul Ladd

Two years ago we sat in a noodle shop in downtown Tokyo and sketched out the beginnings of MY World – a UN–backed global survey

The idea, then as now, was to provide a route for people’s voices to reach directly into the heart of international decision making; in this case, choosing new global priorities to replace the Millennium Development Goals and chart a course for global progress after 2015.

We felt strongly that governments should set these goals knowing what people themselves would choose.

Two years and two million votes later, that initial ambition has been fulfilled.  The My World survey is regularly mentioned in speeches by the UN secretary general and politicians from all countries. Some governments are using My World data to inform their national priorities, and advocacy groups are using it for influencing. 

A growing number of academic analyses use the data to explore how priorities vary between countries, groups and individuals. The survey has yielded intuitive responses – people want decent jobs, better health and a good education.

But more controversial issues (for leaders anyway) are also getting airtime, including more honest and responsive governments, and living without fear of crime and violence.

The survey has required innovation, experimentation and making it up as we went along.  It would have been impossible without the brilliance of colleagues in the UN Millennium Campaign and our many other partners.

The survey will run until 2015, but the two year anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on what lessons were learned, and how the insights can be used to bring people’s views centre stage again in the next task – how to monitor and hold people to account for the implementation of new goals.

The first decision made was whether to aim for representative surveys – for which we’d only need to interview a few thousand people in each country – or for scale, aiming for the maximum number of responses.

In the end we went for both – with an ongoing effort to run as many representative surveys as possible, and a huge outreach effort to pull in large numbers of responses.

The lack of representativeness has been a perennial issue for the survey, and has undermined its legitimacy in some eyes.  However, the impact of the numbers and the mobilising effect of having so many organisations involved in the collection and use of the data has probably offset this.

In particular, a one-off survey would have lacked the long term influence that the campaigning element of My World has given us.  A survey done in 2013 would have been forgotten by now and superseded by other things, but My World has continued to be politically salient, thanks to the efforts of the 700 or so partners involved.

The non-representative element of My World has also allowed us to focus in on particular groups, often the most marginalised, who are too small to be picked up in a nationally representative survey.

We have reached groups of children, slum-dwellers and migrants – none of whose views would have come across clearly in a representative survey.

That’s made it more complementary to other initiatives like Participate, and allowed us to combine words and numbers as we push for a set of goals informed by the priorities of the poorest people.

Representative surveys are crucial and should be a core part of a future monitoring mechanism.  But the My World experience has pointed up the value of deliberately seeking information from specific groups, and the political power of ongoing data collection allied with public awareness. Both of these can and should be built into future accountability frameworks for post-2015.

Another thing we have learned a lot about is the uses and limitations of technology for data gathering – an important lesson for lots of similar efforts.  The survey is available on the internet, on mobile phones and in written form – but it’s the written surveys that dominate.

Well over half of the two million responses have come from traditional methods – people going out into villages, into urban slums, into schools and workplaces, with pens and paper and clipboards.

Innovation has its place, and we’ve also been experimenting with different mobile phone platforms.  But it’s been difficult and slow – with low response rates and a high gender imbalance with 70 per cent of the answers from mobile phones coming from men.

There should be caution before jumping too quickly to technical solutions to problems of data and representation.

The biggest lesson of all is that it is possible to ask people for their views on a global scale, and for that information to be used for decision making in a timely way.  Governments will agree new goals that are all about driving policies and resources to improve people’s lives.

But we are no longer in a world where it is acceptable just to tell people that their lives are getting better – we have to ask what they think.  Whatever methodologies, technologies and partnerships we employ for the future, this is the central lesson of My World.

Claire Melamed is head of the growth, poverty and inequality programme at the Overseas Development Institute. Paul Ladd is head of the post-2015 team at the United Nations Development Programme.