SDG Indicators and Data: Who collects? Who reports? Who benefits?

By Barbara Adams, Global Policy Forum

As part of its mandate to develop an indicator framework by which to monitor the goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda, the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDGs (IAEG-SDGs) held its second meeting in Bangkok, 26-28 October 2015. The objective was to seek agreement on the proposed indicators for each target-keeping in mind that indicators alone can never be sufficient to fully measure progress on the goals. More specifically, it was to move provisional indicators marked yellow-needing further agreement-to either green-agreed by all parties-or grey-no agreement possible. As a result, there are now 159 green indicators (including 52 moved from yellow and 9 new ones), and 62 greys (including 28 moved from yellow plus 5 new ones).

While there is now a proposed indicator (either green or grey) for every target, as required by the IAEG-SDGs' commitment to "no indicator left behind", many of the agreed indicators remain inadequate, and 62 require "more in-depth discussion and/or methodological development." What will happen to these grey indicators if there is no agreement before March 2016 when the framework is to be presented to the UN Statistical Commission? Will they be shoved into an Annex, or dropped altogether? Either way, they risk becoming orphans as the framework is implemented.

Among these orphan targets are two related to poverty, including:

Target 1.4. By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.

Target 1.b. Create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions.

The inability to agree on an indicator on how to measure these targets, which go to the issue of implementation, means that global poverty is to be measured primarily by the World Bank's new International Poverty Line, US$1.90/day-but that the causes of poverty, and efforts to address them, are not. Poverty at the national level will be measured by the proportion of men, women and children living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions, as required by Target 1.2, to reduce this share by half.

The failure to identify structural problems and means to address them-which the world's governments working together in the UN Open Working Group (OWG) succeeded in getting into many of the targets-is repeated throughout the framework, notably under Chapter 10: Reduce inequalities within and among countries and Chapter 17: means of implementation. Although a number of (weak) indicators are agreed to measure inequality within countries, there is nothing even proposed to measure inequalities between countries-including the trade and financial policies that continue to fuel their rise.

This absence was noted repeatedly by civil society organizations (CSOs) in Bangkok, who also proposed indicators to address it. These included the number of disputes brought against countries through dispute settlement processes (by companies, arbitrators, other countries) in areas such as trade, investment, technology; and the number of conditionalities or constraints embodied in Official Development Assistance (ODA) or international loan agreements.

Other proposals addressed the inadequacy of indicators under Goal 17, means of implementation. While questioning the inclusion of Public-Private-Partnerships in the delivery of any essential resources, services, etc. CSOs suggested that the value of such partnerships should be measured in terms of their contribution to sustainable development, specifically by measuring the percentage of public-private (for profit) partnerships that deliver greater value for achieving the SDGs than public or private finance alone. Is there any evidence that outsourcing development delivers on its promises? (GPW, "Fit for Whose Purpose," July 2015).

Green doesn’t mean go

Identifying a meaningful indicator for every target is a formidable task, considering the reality of what the existing data lets countries do. But having one relevant indicator does not mean the target is covered—let alone the goal. It can be easily agreed, for example, that the percentage of resources allocated by governments to poverty reduction programmes or essential services are valuable indicators. But are these “green” indicators appropriate to measure, as proposed, Target 1.a, aiming to “ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, in order to provide adequate and predictable means […] to implement programmes and policies to end poverty”? It is not good enough to say, well that’s just how it is. How will this problem be addressed? To meaningfully measure progress towards the ambitious SDG agenda much more needs to be done.

Let us not forget that the goals and targets apply to all countries, not just developing countries, and that they require reporting at the UN level, not only at the national level or in preferred forums like the OECD. Developed countries cannot be let off the hook on the basis of lack of comparability or willingness to be held to the same standards.

Further it is essential to address the issue of capacity and resources, across the board, including that of all member states: some cannot collect data, others collect incorrect data; still others cannot analyse the data they do collect; while still others lack systems to report on it. What will enable member states to address this problem, which they are all required to do, in a way that gives meaning to ‘nationally owned development’?

In this regard, a number of the CSO proposals indicated a need to go beyond a single indicator and include periodic impact assessments—an approach reportedly under discussion by the UN Statistical Division—but, so far, this is not reflected in the framework.

One way the UN Statistical Commission has taken up this challenge is by setting up the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for post-2015 Monitoring in March 2015, at the same time that it established the IAEG-SDGs. Composed of 15-20 representatives of national statistical offices, and including regional and international agencies as observers, the Group is specifically charged with “promoting national ownership of the post-2015 monitoring process” and fostering “capacity-building, partnership and coordination” to make it possible. It will also seek to mobilize resources, including those of the private sector; and advise on “how the opportunities of the data revolution can be harnessed to support the SDG implementation process, taking into account the levels of development of the countries.”

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* This article first appeared on the Global Policy Watch website.