Data to Leave No one Behind and the Washington Group

By Zach Christensen, November 20, 2017.

The Sustainable Development Goals agreed to two years ago by member states of the United Nations set out an ambitious agenda to leave no one behind. Previous targets had focused on improving conditions on average but leaving no one behind requires improving the living conditions of those most easily excluded from progress. To accomplish this, more people need to be represented and key dimensions of exclusion need to be accurately measured.

At Development Initiatives, the P20 Initiative aims to shine a light on the data available on the people in the poorest 20% of the global distribution (the P20). We will continue to show the progress of this group across several indicators with the idea that this population is particularly likely to be left behind. However, we know that it’s not enough to just look at this population. To have data that is relevant for policy, we need to disaggregate the data by groups that are at risk of being left behind. Specifically, we suggest that the data on the P20 be disaggregated by income, gender, geography, age and disability. Through the disaggregations we will be able to better identify who is being left behind and where they are as well as what aspects of their identity and personal situation intersects to keep them behind. For example are you more likely to be excluded from progress if you a disabled and an older women living in a rural area?

Many disabilities are closely linked with deprivation but there are a lot of missing data on this topic. Currently we are heavily reliant on two major data sources in low- and middle-income countries, USAID’s Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) and UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), to paint a picture of who is and isn’t benefiting from progress. Unfortunately, disability data from these surveys remain spare. Only a handful of countries have collected data on disability as part of the surveys.

For instance, among DHSs carried out since 2010, only 13 % have had some sort of disability questions. Among the few DHS that have disability questions, many have not used the Washington Group questions. Of the 18 surveys carried out in 2017 by DHS, none include disability questions. As a result, there are only reliable data on disability for a very small proportion of countries. Fortunately, USAID, has now approved a disability module using the Washington Group questions for future surveys. It is an optional module, though, but hopefully more and more countries will decide to include it. The latest round of MICS questionnaires includes disability questions from the Washington Group which should increase the ability to get reliable data from there. The MICS website indicates that 39 MICs are currently being designed. We hope that these surveys will include the Washington Group questions.

Another major survey program, the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Survey has generated panel data for a few countries using the Washington Group questions, allowing us to study the link between income/consumption and disability over time. Currently, these questions are only asked for a small set of countries where LSMS is active but the LSMS program is open to including the Washington Group questions.

The general lack of data makes it impossible to say with any degree of certainty how many of the global P20 experience disabilities. It makes it difficult to say if those with disability have been left behind. In countries where the Washington Group questions have been asked, it is clear that the P20 experience higher rates of disability than the rest of the population.

P20 Disability Uganda

To realize the promise to leave no one behind, it will be necessary for countries to better understand the status of those in the P20. We will not be able to have a full understanding of the extent to which people are excluded from progress without more data disaggregated by disability, as well as other aspects of a person’s identity and location. The Washington Group Questions provide the best option to improve data on disability. Now, countries and international donors need to integrate the questions in their surveys so they can monitor populations most likely to be left behind.


Zach Christensen is a senior analyst for Development Initiatives, an  independent international development organization that focuses on the role of data in driving poverty eradication and sustainable development


Emma is the Washington Group Project Coordinator at the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre at UCL.