What happens when the SDGs get translated into indicators?

The transformative agenda may be weakened, and distorted. We recommend that the most problematic indicators be re-examined.

SDGs and numbers Illustration: Colourbox

Illustration: Colourbox

A very major achievement

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been widely praised – and rightly so. The process by which they were negotiated was novel; growing out of the Rio+20 conference, and involving stakeholders with diverse interests and aspirations. It was truly country-led, and avoided the traditional North-South, aid-based perspective that was associated with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The product that resulted from this process has also been justifiably praised. It represents an enormously important normative agenda, calling for development that is inclusive and sustainable, and containing elements that tackle some structural causes of inequality and environmental destruction.

The next step – after agreeing the 17 Goals – was to establish targets and indicators to measure progress towards achieving the goals.

Translating the Goals into targets and indicators

In order to translate this ambitious agenda into action, the international community first established an Open Working Group. The group translated the 17 goals into 169 targets.

Responsibility was then handed over to the statistical community. A new body – the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs – was established under the United Nations Statistical Commission. This group has held, and continues to hold, regular meetings to identify suitable indicators which can be used to monitor progress. No easy task.

Desmond McNeill at SDGs conference in Bergen
Desmond McNeill at the 2018 SDG conference in Bergen. Photo: Eivind Sennested for the University of Bergen.

Translating a complex, comprehensive and transformative agenda into numbers is challenging. There is a danger that in the process of translating the normative agenda into detailed targets and indicators its transformative potential may be lost.

The special issue "Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring SDGs: An Independent Research Initiative” includes also commentaries from people closely involved in the process, who lend support to our claims.

Knowledge and politics in the SDGs

With a group of international researchers, we studied the process, based on a number of case studies. The results can be found here (open access).

The politics of selecting indicators

Across many goals, there was slippage in ambition when targets and indicators were selected. In some cases, this is due to genuine difficulty in defining a suitable indicator; for example, the indicator on sustainable agriculture involves a combination of nine sub-indicators. In other cases, the choice of indicators is politically contested, and  indicators have been used to reorient or even pervert the goal. 

It is clear from analyzing the negotiations – for example concerning inequality, sustainable agriculture, access to justice, education, and environment – that the selection of an indicator is not a purely technical matter. It is often highly political, though obscured behind the veil of an objective and technical choice.

Some examples of inadequate indicators

The SDG framework addresses the challenge of poverty and exclusion, but avoids the issue of ‘extreme inequality’ and the concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the elite. There is no target on reducing unequal distribution.

There is a commendable goal and target for ‘equal access to justice for all’. But  a detailed analysis of the indicators reveals that justice is narrowly defined in practice, limited only to criminal justice.

In the field of education some key priorities - such as free education - are omitted from the framework. Proxy indicators such as information and communications technology (ICT) as a proxy for skills for work, or the provision of basic infrastructure (electricity, sanitation, internet) as proxy for access for the disabled - are inadequate.

When data accessibility is what drives what we measure

It is also clear that ‘big data and other non-traditional sources of data are altering data production, dissemination and use. This raises questions about ‘data for whom and for what’. These are fundamental issues as they concern the power of data to shape knowledge, the democratic governance of SDG indicators and of knowledge for development overall.

The most problematic indicators should be re-examined

We recommend that the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) and the UN Statistical Commission (UN SC) should re-examine the most problematic indicators at the 2020 review. Further:

  1. The UN SC should ensure that the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs is open to comment and proposals for change, while civil society actors and others should continue to invest in scrutinizing the selection of indicators. Criteria for indicator selection should be based more on their accurately reflecting SDG norms and less on data availability. The international community should invest more in developing Tier II and III indicators.
  2. Most national statistical offices (NSOs) cannot implement the SDG indicator framework without adequate resources. National governments and international donors should give higher priority to supporting these needs.
  3. Big data can make a contribution to the SDGs but their development needs to be carefully managed to ensure they promote inclusive and participatory development. To ensure this, UN should play a more proactive role in governing the use of big data, for example through accreditation.
  4. Monitoring the implementation of SDGs should be based on a broad qualitative analysis focused on the goals, not on the indicator framework alone.

Research on the SDGs

The SDGs recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth while tackling climate change and environmental protection. Read more about our research on the SDGs.

By Desmond McNeill
Published Feb. 6, 2019 4:02 PM - Last modified Feb. 7, 2019 1:42 PM

The SUM Blog

A blog about development, aid, global health, energy, governance, environmental issues, consumption and sustainability. Here, researchers and students at the Centre for Development and the Environment, UiO, write about research findings and areas we believe need to be given greater priority.