Image by SNBS
  • Blog
  • 18 November 2021

Improving statistical capacity and data literacy in Somalia

Guest author Sharmarke Farah, Director-General of the Somali National Bureau of Statistics, reflects on the progress his young agency has made and how a newly launched learning platform will play an important role in continuing to improve data literacy in Somalia.

Written by Sharmarke Farah

Director General of Somalia National Bureau of Statistics

The theme of this year’s African Statistics Day, which is celebrated each year on 18 November, is ‘Modernizing National Statistical Systems to Support Sociocultural Development in Africa’. As the Somali National Bureau of Statistics today launches a new learning platform aimed at improving data literacy in Somalia, the event prompts reflection on the progress of the agency to date, the commitment of young Somali statisticians returning from the diaspora, and the future of statistical capacity in Somalia.

Over a decade ago, while working for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Somalia, I oversaw a project funded by the Global Fund as part of its health systems strengthening. The project aimed to develop and transfer the Health Management Information System (HMIS) to the Ministry of Health. Since the collapse of the state, UNICEF collected, analysed and disseminated this data from public clinics and hospitals across the country.

The starting point in this effort was to find qualified personnel – epidemiologists – within the Ministry of Health who could be trained. Unfortunately, there was no one with the required qualification at the time.

We had to widen the scope to anyone with a background in statistics and even advertised externally, outside Somalia. Again, to no avail. To succeed, we were obligated to provide intensive training to new entrants and scholarships to selected participants on epidemiology and health informatics through the World Health Organization.

After four years, through rigorous quality assessments, the project attained its objective: the government, academic institutions, private sector and international partners now rely on the Ministry of Health data, including on Covid-19 information.

At the time, when asked by prospective students on what specialisation they should pursue at a university, I would without hesitation direct them to statistics, given the importance and demand for subject matter experts in Somalia.

Fast forward to 2020, when I was appointed as the Director-General of the newly established Somali National Bureau of Statistics (SNBS). To reach the goals set in the National Statistical Development Strategy, we needed qualified and experienced Somali statisticians to take up leading roles, and hence advertised the jobs on our website. We received over 170 applicants with at least a bachelor’s degree in statistics. Many more had better qualifications and work experience. Indeed, there has been an enormous improvement in the statistical sector’s skills growth compared to a decade ago.

Most applicants were local Somalis who returned from studying statistics at universities in India, Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt and Malaysia. A significant proportion were from the diaspora community from Europe, North America, Australia and the Gulf States. Interestingly a decade or so earlier, Somalia was not an option for the diaspora community, but several recent factors have changed that including improved security, better living conditions for those who can afford it (you can now get decent housing and a serene environment in Somalia’s main cities), and stagnant social mobility in their adopted countries. While we expect many competent applicants to be gradually absorbed into the national statistical system, the immediate need is for well-experienced statisticians who can establish the necessary base.

In conjunction with the development of national statistical capacity, and of equal importance, is statistical literacy: the ability of various target audiences and the general public to understand and reason with statistics and data produced by the SNBS. We live in a data-centric world, with the ‘internet of things’ providing rapid access to data and information that were inaccessible just one generation ago.

As a country, we should be seizing this moment to improve statistical literacy by creating an environment that shines a bright light on data. The first step in this journey would be to improve statistical literacy amongst the public. To scale this, we have to improve the capacity of our key opinion-shapers including journalists, researchers and other public social conductors.

With World Bank support, SNBS has recently commissioned a User Satisfaction Survey to improve our strategy for ensuring we provide all our users with data that is discernible, verifiable, and meets their needs. In addition, the User Satisfaction Survey, being the first exercise of its kind, will also establish the baseline for statistical literacy. It will also strengthen the SNBS’s overall communication and advocacy strategy, paving the way for our country to make data-driven decisions in both social and economic spheres.

‘Capacity building’ is an all-encompassing word and has become a bit of a cliché in the development sector. In some instances, capacity building has been applied for almost three decades with little or no results to show. In others, such as the UNICEF HMIS effort, it can have a transformative impact over a short period. We have a lot more to learn from successful case studies if we are to leverage available data and use them in an appropriate context.

To improve both statistical capacity and data literacy, the SNBS has today launched a YouTube-based digital learning platform. The platform has three sections that present: audio-visuals on the mandate and goals of the SNBS; updates on activities, surveys, and briefs on publications; and curricula-based statistics training courses (including foundation, intermediate and advanced courses). The SNBS is also developing tools to ‘socialise’ the data produced and build public interest in the data, particularly on social media. The process of data socialisation will also ensure the right data is in front of the right person – a decision-maker – at the right time.

With support from the World Bank, African Development Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF, and Statistics Sweden, the SNBS plans to develop the platform, introducing new materials and interactive tools. We believe the platform will significantly bridge the data science divide in Somalia by helping to frame any data communicated in an appropriate context, which will lead to improvements in the rate of production, analysis, understanding and absorption of statistics.

Sharmarke Farah is the Director-General of the Somali National Bureau of Statistics (SNBS). The SNBS is an autonomous government agency mandated to collect, analyse, and disseminate all official economic, social, environmental and demographic statistics as well as formulate policies and establish the internal regulations, priorities, standards, and criteria for all censuses and surveys to be carried out in Somalia. Before his appointment as the Director-General of the SNBS, Mr Farah served as the Principal Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister of Somalia and the Coordinator of the Economic Roadmap, working with 14 federal ministries and the Central Bank. During this period, he was also a member of the Financial Governance Committee, a high-level advisory panel, comprising government and international representatives.