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Global dialogue on data, research and evaluation in UNICEF

16 Aug 2016
Health workers record the weight of a growing child

By Nikola Balvin

Each year, UNICEF staff who work in evidence functions come together at the Data, Research, Evaluation, Analytics and Monitoring global network meeting - affectionately referred to as the DREAM meeting. This convening started out many years ago with a strong focus on monitoring and evaluation, giving M&E officers from around the world an opportunity to discuss indicators and reporting systems. Over time it has grown to include data and analytics, and eventually completed the "package" of UNICEF's evidence-generation functions by also incorporating research. The three evidence functions - research, monitoring & evaluation, and data & analytics - are gaining prominence on UNICEF's strategic agenda. Together they comprise an increasingly important area of technical support sought by governments who are gradually taking over the service delivery role traditionally supported by UNICEF and need evidence on how and where to make the most effective investments for children. The reasons for this are numerous and often linked to economic growth, with evidence activities and upstream policy work accounting for a large proportion of UNICEF's work in middle-income countries in the CEE-CIS and LAC regions and parts of East Asia. The 2014-2017 Strategic Plan recognized this new emphasis by including 'evidence generation, policy dialogue and advocacy' along with 'results-based management' as pivotal areas of its focus. This emphasis is likely to increase even more in light of the universal SDG agenda, where data, research and evaluation will be key to tracking and improving the lives of women and children globally. The delegates came from all regions and many work streams - including headquarters staff, sector specialists (including Health, Social Inclusion, Gender, WASH, and Child Protection), all regional offices, and over 25 country offices. This resulted in a good mix of skills, experiences, and disciplinary and cultural perspectives being brought to the table. A district health team in Lao PDR updates a mother baby health record book.Responding to the global call for evidence posed by the Sustainable Development Goals, it also offered an integrated agenda, where the three evidence functions came together more than ever before to explore synergies, opportunities to capitalize on the wealth of knowledge and skills already present at UNICEF, and ideas for accelerating support and demand for quality evidence to improve the lives of children. After four days of intensive learning and discussion of our priorities and comparative advantages, the final sessions focused on solutions. I took part in a working group tasked with responding to one of the challenges outlined in the meeting agenda to "think more about taking our evidence work to scale across the organization, including support to policies, processes and infrastructure." In the midst of a stimulating discussion on how to bring about a change in our organizational culture to focus more on learning and working together to answer cross-cutting and cross-contextual problems affecting children, Regional Adviser, Social Policy & Economic Analysis from EAPRO, Gaspar Fajth, coined the concept of "big idea trains" that are needed to travel through countries and regions and galvanize support around key research questions, data gaps and evaluation objectives. Staying with the metaphor, these trains - which need to have clearly articulated questions and appealing narratives of how solving the problem will improve the lives of children  -   would travel through different countries, inspiring regional directors and country representatives to "jump on board" to jointly address something that can be a real "game changer" for children in the SDG era. Several such trains have travelled the UNICEF landscape in the past, investing in an area of evidence generation that brought about large-scale changes for children across countries and for many years into the future. The Transfer Project and TransMonEE initiative are just two examples from social policy which brought about sustainable government commitments and/or long-term changes for children across countries. We need more trains like this, asking the right questions, collecting the right data at the right time (not necessarily more data), providing compelling evidence on what works, and enhancing government support to implement sustainable solutions that improve the lives of children in the long term. With the issues of migration, urbanization and climate change emerging as central to UNICEF's work, there certainly are many tracks for the big idea trains to travel on. But they will need smart engineers to set clear priorities and plot the best route to get to the station. The trains will only work when supported by strong leadership, and met with an open mind to question current practices, learn from failure and use new evidence to design better programmes and policies. And like everything UNICEF does, the trains can only be successful if partners are on board and the voices of children steer their course. Nikola Balvin is a Knowledge Management Specialist at the Office of Research - Innocenti. Prior to that she was a Research Officer on UNICEF's flagship publication 'The State of the World's Children' at the New York headquarters. The Office of Research - Innocenti is UNICEF's dedicated research centre investigating  emerging and current priorities to shape policy and practice for children. Access the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue at: unicef-irc.org/publications. Follow UNICEF Inocenti on Twitter @UNICEFInnocenti Subscribe to UNICEF Innocenti emails here.