How data is essential for sustainable development in Turkmenistan

Our Fellow Sofiya Yuvshanova is helping strengthen Turkmenistan’s national capacity to generate evidence for better monitoring of the UN sustainable development goals.

The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are at the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda to end poverty and inequality, drive economic growth and tackle climate change. Turkmenistan was one of the first countries to adopt the goals and integrate them into its national plans for social and economic development.

“To achieve the goals, we need to know how to measure them,” says Sofiya, a John Smith Trust Fellow since 2018. When Sofiya began her career at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), she realised that population data was an area for development in Turkmenistan. Now working as a data specialist for UNICEF, she has set out to help strengthen  the quality of data to inform policymakers working on development issues.

“The main focus is to support the government to strengthen the capacities in evidence-based policy making, which will address the needs of the most vulnerable population groups, such as children, families, people with disabilities, and migrants,” she says.

A collaborative approach

In 2019 Sofiya, together with the team of experts,  was involved in producing Turkmenistan’s first Voluntary National Report on the SDGs. It’s also the first such report to include a detailed statistical annex across selected SDGs.

“I’m proud that we were able to develop such a well-prepared report,” says Sofiya “This is a really cross-sector national effort, as the report was developed with ideas provided by the private sector, non-profit organisations and youth as well. This work was the first of its kind and allowed us to bring broader insights to the report and develop a platform for multi-sectoral and multi-partner cooperation.”

When Sofiya applied for the John Smith Trust fellowship, she says: “I wanted to gain new skills and strengthen my knowledge in innovative data sources and innovative opportunities for funding and investments into social projects.” As she was involved with Turkmenistan’s newly established Research Guidance Centre on Sustainable Development Goals she also wanted to learn about how similar think-tanks operate in the UK and look for ways to develop the centre into a self-funding knowledge hub.

Tips for users of data

One of the people Sofiya met during the fellowship was Dr Benedict Wilkinson from the Policy Institute at King’s College London. “Every piece of advice he provided in Sustainable Development was helpful and inspiring that I came back home with many ideas,” she says.

Woman with long dark hair smiling Our Fellow Sofiya Yuvshanova is helping strengthen Turkmenistan’s national capacity to generate evidence for better monitoring of the UN sustainable development goals

Sofiya also visited The Data Lab, a centre for innovation in data and AI, based in Edinburgh. “I was really impressed,” she says. “The people I met at The Data Lab were easily understood and so helpful in providing ideas and directions in data analysing. They helped me to structure my view in the world of data. That is why I chose to start by using focus groups to gather citizen-generated data.”

People behind the statistics

On her return to Turkmenistan, Sofiya advocated for piloting the focus groups with citizens in every region for evaluations. Together with her colleagues they developed the structure of the meetings and  met people from a wide range of demographic groups including youth, women, older people and people with disabilities.

“Statistical data is not emotional,” says Sofiya. “But when you meet with people, you learn so much that you will not find in any statistical booklet. I developed the questionnaires in discussion with The Data Lab. They shared some examples of how to ask questions, to avoid creating uncomfortable situations.

“It was not easy emotionally but very helpful professionally because we learned how to behave, how to ask the questions, how to collect the information that would be useful for the analysis.”

Potential for impact investing

Part of Sofiya’s action plan, developed during her fellowship, was to look at the potential of impact investing into the implementation  of projects related to the SDGs in Turkmenistan, such as the Centre on Sustainable Development Goals.

With this in mind, she met with impact investing specialists including Hannah Barkan and Lars Hagelmann from Big Issue Invest and Jessica Daggers, impact investment analyst at Nesta. On her return to Turkmenistan, she brought together representatives from the banking and private sector to explore this area. She was able to secure funding from the British Embassy to organise the workshop.

“We learned that impact investing is of great interest for our private sector,” says Sofiya. “This work needs to be continued and to be backed by the UN or other civil society organisations. We are still learning how to apply it in Turkmenistan.”

Young ambassadors

Sofiya proposed and developed a concept on establishing the Young SDG Ambassadors programme, which encourages young people to get involved in making the SDGs a reality. “Youth always have ideas for innovation and we need to harness their potential,” she says.

“We conducted a contest where young people applied, submitting their ideas and their motivations, and we selected them confidentially. It was a pioneering type of contest in Turkmenistan. The idea was born while at the John Smith Trust and the knowledge I gained there helped me to develop a concept for the contest and further organise the work of these young people and help them grow.”

A second cohort of young ambassadors is now signed up to the programme. “They’re very smart young people,” says Sofiya. “Each of them advocates around different aspects, such as sustainable production and consumption, environmental protection and climate change.”

John Smith Trust Fellows’ network

Sofiya found one of the most valuable aspects of the fellowship was meeting a group of like-minded professionals from Turkmenistan and across central Asia.

“We continue communicating,” she says. “For example, when we talk about big data generation, I get advice from my peer – a Fellow in Kazakhstan – who is into programming and coding. As a statistician, I work on the processed data. But programmers know the raw data and how to analyse it through their systems.”

Sofiya also worked with another John Smith Trust Turkmenistani Fellow, Nazik Avlyakulova, on the Voluntary National Report and during the discussions with the private sector on impact investing. “It’s a great network,” she says. “I’m proud I became part of this network and because I know these great people.”

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Top photo of Ashgabat by Dovlet Madatov on Unsplash