Making Invisible Populations Count – The development agenda of the 21st Century

Published 10/12/2018 By CSC Staff

By Caroline Ford, (CSC Chief Executive Jan 2017- Feb 2021), ahead of CSC’s participation in the UN World Data Forum, 22-24 October, in Dubai.

Inclusive and reliable population data is central for the Global Goals and its Leave No-one Behind Agenda.  Progress cannot be measured, and impact not evaluated without good reliable data.  In order to leave no one behind in the Global Goals, we need to also leave no one behind in data collection.

However counting only those who are visible puts in jeopardy the entire SDG project. If we do not know who the hidden and invisible populations are, then how can we know who is, in fact, being left behind? Despite the global attention on inclusive population data, national and international data collection mechanisms do not capture the most marginalized and vulnerable populations – the hidden and invisible. And the most hidden and invisible around the world are street children.  Expecting street children to automatically be included in the methodologies currently in use is naïve at best, and exclusionary and inaccurate at worst.

While street children may not be intentionally omitted from data collection, the methods most often used during sampling render street children and other vulnerable populations invisible.  Household surveys, considered to be one of the most important data sources, exclude populations outside traditional households, such as displaced-, refugee- and homeless populations including street children.  Moreover, censuses, which are considered more inclusive, are often not carried out on a regular basis by many countries, partly due to the cost in financial and human resources. When they are, street children remain largely hidden and uncounted.

Censuses and surveys were central for monitoring the progress of the Millennium Development Goals and remain central for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Around a third of the SDG indicators, more than 75 indicators spread across 17 goals, are measured through household surveys.  For these indicators, street children and other invisible populations do, in fact, risk to be left behind.  Without a change to how data is collected, measured progress on the goals face limitations that challenge the Leave No-one Behind Agenda, as it relies on data collection designs that cannot capture progress for invisible populations.

For street children the risk cannot be overstated. Currently, there is no reliable global estimate on the number of street children and national current data remains scarce. We also see that for those who do attempt to map and count street children, they are hampered by the use of different definitions, counting methodologies and estimation models.  This creates difficulties in tracking and comparing data between countries, regions and over time. As a consequence street children are continuously left out of child protection policies, initiatives and systems.

Street children and youth often live mobile and transient lives which can make them hard to reach, and often they have an active interest in being invisible.  They may wish to remain invisible in order to protect themselves from violence, exploitation and other risks which children on the streets face on a daily basis. Street children can also want to remain invisible to protect themselves from scrutiny and punitive action when population data is used against them – when they have no control about what is collected, who it is transferred to, and how data about them is used.  Deciding how the data is collected and its subsequent use is as important as the decision to include street children in the sampling methodology.

Not explicitly including in data collection the vulnerable and marginalised populations such as street children can perpetuate patterns of poverty and inequality as the information use in decision making will be biased. Critical evidence and data is key for changing policies to improve the lives and livelihood of the most vulnerable. We see an immediate need to capture invisible populations including street children in data sources, as well as a rethink how we identify population groups that intersect and overlap.

During the UN World Data Forum, I hope to connect with others to explore new ways to ensure reliable data that includes street children. I would like to ensure street children are counted in the data collected that influences national and international agenda-setting and policy-making.  I want to explore opportunities on how to make street children and other invisible populations count, and are not left behind in progress towards the SDGs.  Please contact me to discuss this more while at the Forum.