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Beyond data: the power of listening

Nigerian woman smiling, group members in background

Yakura Malah Kachallah, 37, is from northeast Nigeria. She is a founder of her Village Savings & Loan Association (VSLA), which started during the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020. Photo: Blessing Bulus/CARE Nigeria

Yakura Malah Kachallah, 37, is from northeast Nigeria. She is a founder of her Village Savings & Loan Association (VSLA), which started during the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020. Photo: Blessing Bulus/CARE Nigeria

We deal with huge numbers all day in humanitarian and development work.

To name just a few examples:

  • 274 million people need humanitarian assistance in 2022.
  • 181 million people are experiencing a food crisis.
  • 2.3 billion people were food insecure in 2021.

Dashboards and reports and new data come out every day highlighting the scale of the very real challenges the world is facing today.

Behind every single one of those numbers is a human—millions of humans—living a life and trying to deal with the challenges they are facing. They are more than a line in a spreadsheet that matches to a global indicator. They are more than an input for an algorithm that will predict what happens next. They are a person—complete and valuable, separate from any aggregation. They matter beyond the insight that mining their data can provide.


Women at a sewing machine surrounded by group members
In the Niger refugee camp where Lami lives, women and girls face a high risk of sexual violence. At one time, there were nightly cases of rape. As president of her local savings group, Lami was able to mobilize the women in her group, take this issue to local law enforcement and demand that they patrol each night to help keep women in the camp safe. Photo: Ekinu Robert/CARE

Numbers don’t tell the whole story

Their experiences are also more complex than numbers alone can describe. In Bangladesh, numbers showed that women in refugee camps couldn’t leave the house during COVID-19. It would have been easy to assume that was because women were afraid of catching COVID.

But when we asked women, they said that men in their lives believed the pandemic was caused by women having more freedoms, and the way to end COVID was to roll back women’s rights.

Numbers alone never would have revealed the underlying problem, much less pointed to a solution. If we depend on numbers alone, at best, we would have come up with actions that overlooked the underlying challenge—a social norm that blames and polices women. At worst, we would have made the problem worse by proposing solutions that increased the risk of violence to women and girls.

Group of women, all putting one hand or fist in the air
Concerned that women had to trek nearly six miles to the nearest food distribution point, Halatu, a South Sudanese refugee, and her women’s group in the Omugo refugee settlement in Uganda, helped to organize a peaceful boycott to successfully advocate for the food distribution point to be moved closer to the community. Halatu’s work hasn’t stopped there. She has taken on roles in the camp’s Refugee Welfare Council and now has set her sights on becoming Chairperson, a role traditionally occupied by men. Photo: Ekinu Robert/CARE

If we want to help people solve the problems they are facing—and that the world is facing—we need to listen. We need to invest in helping them solve their own problems. Because with resources and support, women come up with incredible solutions.

In Niger, women found ways to share COVID-19 information in minority-language communities so no one had to go without the information to protect themselves. In Uganda, women organized to change the way the UN does food distribution so that it was safer and easier for women to get food.

Group of four women looking at a smartphone
Ladidi Sani is a mother of seven and a grandmother of 35. She has been a VSLA village agent since 1997. As one of the first village agents in her region, she pioneered the idea that women could help other women start groups—either in their own communities or in other areas. Photo: Safoura Doby/CARE

Understanding data, putting it to work

We have a lot of faith in numbers and debate them vigorously. We talk about why you need to count different people (you really do—especially women and girls). We’ve spent more than a decade talking about how big data will change the world. Left alone, that is not going to be enough to solve global problems. What will be enough?

  • We need better data. In the data we currently have, many people are invisible. Looking at online behavior? 52% of women in the world don’t use the internet, so they aren’t in the data (that’s 243 million fewer women than men online). In 2013, ZERO humanitarian responses were collecting data about women’s needs in order to plan a better response. Most global data on food doesn’t provide specific data on women. We need better ways to listen to women directly.
  • We need to act on data. Collecting data is a good step, but we need to feed that data into decisions. While many groups collect data about women and girls, and a few collect data about other historically marginalized groups, upcoming research shows that most people don’t use the data they collect. So they’ve taken the time of refugees, people in crisis, and people who have no time to spare, and then they leave that data to collect dust in spreadsheets without ever analyzing that data or using it to make better decisions.
  • Get data and resources to people who solve problems. Putting data, and more importantly, resources and authority, in the hands of the people closest to the problem is the most important step we can take. Far too few resources go to women, and women are dramatically underrepresented when it comes time to make decisions. But when they have resources and a seat at the table, women come up with incredible solutions to problems.

I was not afraid or slowed down by anyone. I spoke in public and in front of everyone in order to defend our rights.


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