Lost in Indicators: How the 'experts' are rewriting the SDGs

By Roberto Bissio | Almost one third of the targets that define the 17 Sustainable Development Goals approved by the governments at the UN are being de facto rewritten or deleted by the Inter-Agency Expert Group proposal of “priority indicators” published June 1 in New York. Important notions included in the SDGs such as labour rights, women rights to property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources and many commitments of developed countries to support the efforts of developing countries are excluded from the proposed list of indicators and would therefore not form part of the UN reviews of the new development agenda.

The most blatant example is Goal 10, “Reduce inequality within and among countries”. Not a single indicator is proposed to measure inequalities among countries (or globally) and there is no suggestion of a proper universal indicator of inequality within countries, even when the Gini Index and the Palma ratio are gathered and widely used by the World Bank and almost any academic study on inequalities.

Social Watch compiled a table of around 50 SDG targets (out of a total of 169) that would be substantially altered by an indicator that does not measure at all or only partially what the target is about. This is particulalrly the case of all targets related to the Means of Implementation. Take target 1.a, which proposes to “ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation”. The indicator proposed (by the World Bank) measures the “share of total overall government spending (incl. subnationals) on programs directed to bottom 40% of population of country”. The “priority indicator” not only does not measure any enhancement in international cooperation but also shifts the attention (and the potential blame for not meeting the target) to the developing country government and not to the developed countries failing to do their part.

Similarly, target 3c wants to “substantially increase financing” for health, but the proposed indicators only measures the number of health workers. Target 4.c wants “international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries” but the proposed indicators only measures the number of teacher trained, independently of the existence of cooperation or not.

This incoherence between targets and indicators is particulalry noticeable in many targets related to sustainability. Target 15.c of the SDGs wants to “enhance global support for efforts to combat poaching and trafficking of protected species, including by increasing the capacity of local communities to pursue sustainable livelihood opportunities”. The proposed indicator is an OECD measure of foreign direct investment in forestry, which many would argue is part of the problem!

Similarly, target 17.06 wants to “enhance [...] international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation [...] through a global technology facilitation mechanism” but the indicator proposed by WIPO measures the use of the current international intellectual property system, which is seen by developing countries as, precisely, one of the obstacles that this target tries to avoid.

A simple binary indicator of “yes or no” could be a valid indicator on targets such as 16.10 that requires countries to pass legislation to ensure access to information if they haven't done so already in order to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms”. Instead, difficult to assess numerical targets are proposed on, for example, number of journalists killed. As a journalist I certainly want that indicator to be zero, but it is a paradox of life that journalists start being killed when their work is important to produce changes because there is (at least some) freedom of expression...

Finally, on indicators themselves, target 17.18 wants to “By 2020, enhance capacity-building support to developing countries [...] to increase significantly the availability of [...] disaggregated data”. The proposed indicator on indicators measures “proportion of sustainable development indicators with full disaggregation produced at the national level” but not the support to achieve that result.

The introduction to the list says that “one important consideration is that the number of indicators must (emphasis added) be limited and that there should be only one indicator per target (or fewer, if multipurpose indicators can be identified/developed)”. This recommendation does not come from any UN resolution but seems to be part of the message that the UN agencies are receiving from important donors, that are said to want “at the most 100 indicators.”

If that indicator is met, the substance of the SDGs that the governments agreed to, in all its complexity, will be lost.

By Roberto Bissio, Social Watch

Photo: Arrow confusion, Vivisquare, Flickr