Some heroes wear blue helmets and stand in the line of fire to maintain peace. Others bring food to those on the brink of starvation. And some wield a calculator.
These heroes rarely make headlines, yet without them most of the United Nations goals would be unachievable. In honour of World UN Day this month, we raise our glasses to its least recognized champions — the statisticians.
These bean counters are changing the world.
"Counting counts. If we're not counting, we can't see where the gaps are and what we've accomplished," says Kathryn White, president and CEO of the UN Association in Canada.
UN statisticians gather unimaginable reams of data that shape national and global policy in every imaginable area. Their calculations can alter our understanding of global issues.
Perceptions about the role of women and the economy in developing regions changed drastically when UN statisticians delved deep into gender-specific stats in the early 1990s, White says.
Previously, poverty-fighting initiatives rarely considered gender. But crunched numbers indicated that targeted investment in women's empowerment had a major impact on poverty and other social issues. Every additional year that a girl attends school results in a 9.5-per-cent decrease in child mortality. Increasing income for women results in better education and health for children; they are more likely than men to use resources to benefit the whole family.
Governments and development organizations shifted focus to women's empowerment.
Studies also showed that men tended to hoard food aid rations for sale, while women were more likely to share it with their families, leading to better child nutrition. So food aid programs began working directly with women wherever possible.
The UN's flagship statistical document, the annual Human Development Report, launched in 1990, has inspired more than 140 countries to engage in similar statistical self-examination, supported by the UN, with big benefits. During Uganda's AIDS epidemic, better data tracked factors that spread the disease, leading to programs that have significantly reduced the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The country of Jordan identified its most impoverished districts, and targeted them with employment and development programs, boosting quality of life.
Today, the UN Statistics Division partners with more than 30 national statistics agencies around the world, building and mining big data that will help both the UN and individual countries develop policies and programs to address social and environmental issues. For example, together the UN and Statistics Canada developed indexes on remoteness and accessibility to services like health care and transportation. These will help future programs for hard-to-reach rural and northern communities.
"We need to ensure that everyone is counted, especially the most poor and vulnerable. We need local statistics to ensure that every child has access to education and we need global statistics to monitor the overall effects of climate change," said Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General, in a statement for World Statistics Day earlier this month.
So here's to the analysts, the number-crunchers and the bean counters of the UN. The knowledge they provide promotes world change.