The Devil is in the Detail: A roadmap to the SDG indicators

With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set to be announced during the UN General Assembly this September, governments have been turning their attention to how this new agenda will be implemented. Establishing indicators to measure progress is a high priority because when it comes to incentives for action what gets measured ends up being more important than the broader goals they represent.

Ambitions are high but must be matched with capacities to deliver. For many countries even the process of measuring progress will be an enormous effort as there are over 300 indicators proposed in the first round, including complex indexes, multidimensional propositions and others more loosely defined. Indicators must be compatible with national realities and the ability to collect the data. Thus, the UN system should play a large role in supporting governments of developing countries in undertaking this task.

Through a series of consultations and revisions set to happen between August and mid-November, the UN Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG) will finalize the selection.  At the national level, this means that now is the time for statisticians and data producers to become more involved and for leadership of the SDGs indicators to shift away from the political towards the technical. Once considered the domain of technocrats, the process to define clear and feasible measures for the SDGs has become highly politicized, with diplomats now playing as large a role as statisticians. The challenge will be to strike a balance between political commitments to leave no one behind, disaggregating data for gender, race, ethnicity, location, etc. and technical capacities to deliver.

As the host of the Rio+20 Conference, which gave birth to the SDGs idea, Brazil is heavily invested in the post-2015 process both at home and internationally.  The RIO+ Centre and UNDP have been supporting these efforts. Following the June meeting of the IAEG, Brazil, as the group’s representative of Mercosur and Chile, brought together the national statistics institutes of each country to discuss the process, obtain initial feedback on the proposed indicators, and share a model for domestic consultations.

Spearheaded by IBGE, the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, the Federal government delivered an online survey to all relevant official national data producers to rate each of the proposed indicators against several criteria. The survey was followed up with a 3-day meeting, with over 50 ministries, organizations and other data producers to review the results and discuss them in greater depth. Each indicator was put to the test to see if it was feasible to measure and with how much additional effort. Another key question was to what extent the proposed indicator would accurately capture the goal.

For instance, the first indicator for cities measures the percentage of urban population living in slums or informal settlements. This indicator aims to address the target for adequate housing, but not all slums are created equal. In Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, for example, nearly all houses are made of bricks and mortar, have access to water and electricity and more than half of their residents are considered middle class. As it stands, this indicator would capture even the rich foreigners who are increasingly choosing to live in some favelas because of their prime locations and postcard views. Instead, panelists at the IBGE workshop argued that measuring percentages of people who have access to the various municipal services would better reflect the target. As this example demonstrates, choosing the right indicator can be a complex and political decision.

Many questions remain as to how the implementation and reporting of the SDGs will unfold. But as the September General Assembly approaches a few things are clear.

  • It will be essential for the UN to support the implementation process and to build upon the lessons from measuring the MDGs;
  • Government leadership will be key, and so too will be mirror reporting from civil society; and
  • For this to be in any way a reality, and in light of budget and data constraints, the numbers and complexity of indicators should remain low without succumbing to business as usual approaches that fail to trigger the transformative type of approaches needed for the SDG agenda to be a success.

This post-2015 SDG agenda, the fruit of years of global negotiations and expert debate, will result in an ambitious and promising proposal that needs to be accompanied by an equally ambitious and participatory monitoring and accountability framework that incentivizes new, transformative pathways for sustainable development.

Suggested reading:

Sustainable Development Goal Indicators Website (official UN site)

SDSN Indicators webpage

SDSN’s indicators and a Monitoring Framework for Sustainable Development Goals: Launching a data revolution for the SDGs report

IISD note on indicators process

One Comment on “The Devil is in the Detail: A roadmap to the SDG indicators

  1. Pingback: Countdown started – SDG 17: Partnership for the Goals | Rio+ Centre

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