Big goals need starting points. In the international development field, the places to contribute are seemingly endless. It’s hard to know what to focus on and where to begin. This gap between good intentions and impact is where data comes in. Big goals need big data.

What is Big Data?

Besides being a buzzword, ‘big data’ refers to a large body of collected measurements/answers/metrics stored for immediate or eventual use. Organizations like ours (Swedish Organization for Global Health) are able to use previously collected data sets, commission new data to be gathered, or leverage sites like Gapminder in order to plan projects and assess impact. Data gives us knowledge and our mission gives us a reason to work toward improving that data.

Why Maternal Mortality Rates Matter

Maternal mortality rates (MMR) measure the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, annually. Sweden had an MMR of 4 in 2015, which means that in 2015, four out of every 100,000 women died either while giving birth or shortly thereafter from birth-related complications. Tracking maternal mortality matters both socially and economically. The loss of a mother has immediate consequences for the family, the community and even the country in which she lived. These consequences can include: emotional grief, family economic hardship, lack of opportunity for surviving children and community collapse.

Surprising Disparities

The range of global maternal mortality rates across the world is enormous. The highest rate is found in Sierra Leone – at over 1,300 – while the lowest ties in Greece, Iceland, Poland and Finland, each with a total of 3. While 99% of maternal mortality occurs in low income countries, there are still extreme discrepancies in nations with a high income rate. This goes against the belief that nations with a high economy don’t experience health inequities. Rather, all nations can, and do, experience some form of health inequity. This is often due to both structural and racial inequality.

For example, the United States currently has the worst MMR of high income countries. Though the United States’ MMR is still above the average threshold, racial disparities within the country manifest in MMR similar to countries considered low income. The data shows that in the United States, the MMR for white women is 13, but for black women it’s 43. This means that black women are 243% more likely to die either while giving birth or shortly thereafter from birth-related complications than white women. This systematic racism within the US has been measured by data, and subsequently cannot be ignored by lawmakers or health agencies.

Data in Action

Solutions to identified problems need awareness, data, and plans. A recently released report on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 shows that progress is occurring, but slowly. If the 2030 goal of a global maternal mortality rate of 70 is to be met, “the pace of progress in reducing maternal mortality needs to double.

All countries can meet this challenge by learning from existing data. Reductions in MMR occur by increasing access to quality care before and after childbirth, and access to skilled care during birth delivery. The World Health Organization, the United Nations, NGOs, national government health ministries and local communities must learn from each other, work together, and craft country-specific plans to address this multi-layered but preventable issue.

At the Swedish Organization for Global Health, we have heeded the call to action by creating and implementing the Mama and Family Project in southeastern Uganda. Other innovations have sprouted or grown within community-based care and a focus on midwifery models, as fellow Girls’ Globe blogger Tilde Holm explores in her documentary series.

It is important to use the tools we have to address the facts. However, we must remember what the data actually represents beyond numbers and what the acronyms mean beyond letters. Human lives and global shifts depend on it.

To understand why maternal mortality occurs, check out the World Health Organization’s factsheet.

Christiana Lang is a current Rotary Peace Fellow at Uppsala University studying the intersection between peace and conflict with women’s health, participation, and equality.

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