Data from the UN is saving lives across the world

They might help us detect outbreaks of diseases more rapidly, thus allowing health authorities to intervene much faster to contain or even stop disease transmission

By Stéphane Helleringer

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(itket 'tanshi
(itket 'tanshi

Published: Tue 25 Oct 2022, 8:26 PM

United Nations Day on October 24 marked the anniversary of the entry into force in 21945 of the UN Charter at the close of World War II. Seventy-eight years later, UN Day celebrates and reflects on the work of the UN and its family of specialised agencies.

When we reflect on its work around the world, we might think of its 100,000 peacekeeping personnel, the food and assistance that it provides to 115.5 million people in 84 countries, or its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that provide a blueprint for countries to reach a world of dignity for all by 2030.

But attention should also be given to the unfussy work that the UN does behind the scenes, particularly to improve statistics on the global population. These are the often-discussed figures about how many children women usually have, how long people live and what are their causes of deaths, throughout the world.

In many countries (for example in large parts of Africa or South Asia), such basic indicators are very hard to calculate because populations are infrequently counted, and only a fraction of all births and deaths are registered by administrative systems. This means that governments lack the basic population statistics that are vital for planning social and health services.

The UN works in two areas to improve what we know about populations, and how they change over time. First, it compiles an impressive repository of all the data sources that are currently available about each country of the world. In some countries, this is very detailed and frequently updated. In others, it is extremely patchy. For example, in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, there hasn’t been a census of the entire population since 1984. The demographers and statisticians of the UN do their best to learn from this information; they develop sophisticated models and projections that summarize what we know (and don’t know) about the global population. As a result every two years, the UN publishes its World Population Prospects, which is widely used to aid in the planning of everything from healthcare and pension policies, to taxation and resource management.

Second, the UN works closely with national governments and non-governmental organizations to ensure that populations are frequently enumerated in systematic ways, and that every birth and death is properly registered and documented. As part of a broad array of activities, the Statistics division of the UN thus writes extensive recommendations about the best ways to conduct population censuses, or how to register births and deaths; the UN’s Fund for Population Activities supports countries so that they conduct a census of their population every 10 years or so; the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) mounts extensive campaigns to ensure that every child gets a birth certificate; as well as, among other things, the World Health Organization advises countries about how to determine causes of deaths in places where there might be no doctors, or where diagnostic tools are lacking.

As a demographer studying the impact of epidemics on population health, I see these efforts of the UN as key to avoiding future pandemics and health crises. They might help us detect outbreaks of diseases more rapidly, thus allowing health authorities to intervene much faster to contain or even stop disease transmission. They might also help us identify what works best to prevent the spread of diseases, for example by observing whether the number of deaths due to a specific disease or condition declines after a new policy is put in place. This really matters because there is often a tendency for people to judge such actions and policies based solely on their own experience, or on very limited and selective information, rather than analysing data.

In the research cluster on health and demography at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), we try to help accelerate progress towards the UN’s goal of building better data systems throughout the world. We have studied why families don’t register their births and deaths in countries like Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia or Bangladesh, and investigated what might prompt them to do so. Recently, in partnership with the UN’s Statistics Division, we held a large meeting (with participants from more than 25 countries) on how to conduct upcoming surveys and censuses to better assess the global death toll of the Covid19 pandemic.

As we celebrate UN Day, we should recognize this unshowy vital work of the UN, its organizations and partners in providing the information on which we base our most important policies.

- Stéphane Helleringer is Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, NYU Abu Dhabi

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