Are we ready to implement the SDGs?

The U.N. has given preliminary approval to the last and most technical part of the new Sustainable Development Goals framework. Yet that has left open key, contentious questions around the role that cities and civil society will play in monitoring.


When almost every nation on the planet agreed to a set of 17 anti-poverty and sustainability goals in September, it was a historic moment. But the work on implementing those Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which went into effect in January, is just beginning. Beneath each of those goals are multiple targets, each of which needs to be measured — somehow. It’s this last part that is now proving as contentious as it is important.

The U. N. has called this issue the “last missing piece” of the new SDGs. After all, deciding on detailed metrics by which to gauge progress on the goals is almost certain to be highly influential in determining how the massive new strategy gets implemented on the ground, as well as who it helps and how.

That last piece started to fall into place this month, when a U. N. commission approved a long list of these metrics, known as indicators. Yet as it turns out, significant work remains in finalizing this final component. A key part of that additional work is set to begin this week, when a technical group that has been shepherding the indicators process meets for three days in Mexico City.

“Completing the indicator framework is of course not the end of the story — on the contrary, it is the beginning,” U. N. official Wu Hongbo said 11 March in prepared remarks. “The SDG indicators will require an unprecedented amount of data to be produced and analyzed — and it is evident that this will pose a significant challenge for national statistical systems, in developing as well as developed countries.”

[See all of Citiscope’s reporting on the SDGs from a cities angle]

The central action here was this month’s annual meeting of the U. N. Statistical Commission, which gave its long-awaited green light to more than 230 proposed indicators. Yet while the commission approved the full list of proposed indicators, it did so with significant caution. Discussion on the issue took well longer than the time allotted, and member states almost all warned that the approved list was merely preliminary.

Work on refining the indicators will now begin Wednesday, when the technical body that proposed these metrics — a group known as the Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IAEG) — meets in Mexico City. The sessions will be only the group’s third face-to-face meeting, and it suddenly has much more than expected on its plate.

“The Statistical Commission’s work opened the floodgates for the IAEG’s mandate moving forward, so the scope of their work is a little unclear,” said Jess Espey of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an external group of experts launched by the U. N.“A lot hinges on the meeting at the end of this month to figure out modalities on refining a lot of the indicators.”

A key consideration will be deciding on how the indicators can be adapted to national and local contexts, a central aim for both government and non-government supporters of this process, albeit for differing reasons. While national statistical offices will eventually be able to make available single numbers on how their countries as a whole are doing on the goals, many outside of national governments are increasingly asking about prospects for tracking progress — and thus informing policymaking — at the regional or cities level.

[See: Hundreds of comments offered on indicators for urban SDG]

For instance, look at the new goal on cities — Goal 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Even at this late date, it remains unclear how responding to the new mandates of Goal 11 will be apportioned between national governments and city authorities. Similar questions are being voiced over the intrinsically urban elements of many of the rest of the SDGs — and this concern is now taking specific form in the fight over the indicators.

Complexities of monitoring

The SDGs framework breaks down like this. First are the 17 goals themselves, outlining the framework’s overarching priorities for sustainable development over the coming 15 years. These range from traditional priorities on health, education and sanitation to newer concerns such as urbanization and climate. They also include nebulous, and highly contentious, aims around governance, justice and equality.

“The process of finalizing the SDG indicators offers unique insight into the power struggles that bubble beneath the surface of what is widely being discussed as a new ‘revolution’ in the use of data in guiding policymaking, including around global development.”

Below each of the goals are 169 “targets”, offering specifics at which the global community is supposed to be aiming over the next decade and a half. For instance, while Goal 3 outlines a broad vision around health — “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages” — it also includes 13 related targets on how to achieve that vision, each of which is supposed to come to fruition by 2030. For example, one of Goal 3’s targets directs governments to “end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age”.

Both the goals and targets were finalized in September at a major summit in New York, where 193 national governments agreed on the final outline. What has remained unfinished, however, has been the third level of these goals: the indicators under each of the targets. While these will offer specific yardsticks by which to gauge progress on the ground, they will also do much to guide actual implementation of each goal.

[See: SDGs review needs to go local, advocates say]

It’s important to recognize that these indicators are not meant to guide national-level policymaking but rather to allow the international community a way to track global progress on the 169 targets. Nonetheless, the indicators are expected to influence how domestic authorities decide on how to implement the SDGs.

To go back to Goal 3, how exactly will global progress on ending preventable deaths of newborns and young children actually be measured? Through two newly approved indicators that measure the exact level of mortality for children under five and for infants. In this case, then, the indicators are quite straightforward.

But that’s not the case with many of the 169 targets, which venture into far more complex and politically tenuous areas — around energy consumption, perceptions of safety, experiences of corruption and much more. Few believe that the SDGs themselves lack in ambition; on the contrary, a central complaint has been that they may be too ambitious.

[See: Inextricably interlinked: The urban SDG and the new development agenda]

Yet as the process to define indicators to measure progress on the goals has proceeded, some are wondering whether indicators can now be found that can actually measure up to the scope of the goals they’re supposed to measure.

Whose data revolution?

The indicators, after all, are where the sprawling vision of the SDGs collides directly with the facts and feasibility on the ground. In detailing exactly what does (and hence doesn’t) need to be measured, they will inevitably guide governments on what does (and doesn’t) need to be acted upon, and how. That’s why the process of formulating the indicators has drawn keen attention on all sides.

National governments, for instance, are balking at the number of indicators, raising concerns over whether their statistical offices are staffed and trained well enough to maintain statistically robust data on the range of SDGs-related priorities. They’re also giving voice to longstanding frustrations over being told how to structure their domestic development initiatives.

Academics and civil society groups, meanwhile, are suggesting that the list of approved indicators isn’t detailed enough. They’re also questioning where the data will come from in the first place: solely from national statistical offices? Or will cities have a key part to play in this process? And what about citizens themselves — those who are supposed to be benefiting from this new development regime and often know best what is and isn’t working?

[See: The SDGs don’t adequately spell out cities’ role in implementation]

Indeed, the process of finalizing the SDG indicators offers unique insight into the power struggles that bubble beneath the surface of what is widely being discussed as a new “revolution” in the use of data in guiding policymaking, including around global development. After all, this revolution is in part powered by new technologies that have also done much to democratize the production of data. How, then, does this inform who decides on development priorities — and who controls related funding?

“The UN Statistical Commission report on SDG indicators fails to distinguish between indicators that are valuable for national and state governments and indicators that are valuable (or essential) for local governments,” David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Environment and Development, wrote this month. “Since much of the responsibility for meeting many of the SDGs in urban areas falls to local governments, the measures being discussed at the UN Statistical Commission need to include local government indicator needs.”

As yet, this is not happening. Both the Statistical Commission and the IAEG note that breaking down the indicators by different categories — a process called disaggregation — is a key requirement in order that the SDGs “leave no one behind”. Further, one of the priorities for this disaggregation process is by geography.

But Satterthwaite argues that “this seems to think that disaggregating by rural and urban areas is enough.” Disaggregating by city or even neighbourhood, doesn’t yet appear to be on the table.

Further, national governments appear to have made a strong case for directing this part of the process. Although a key priority for the IAEG this year will to develop guidance around disaggregation, the Statistical Commission has now formally noted that “Indicators for regional, national and subnational levels of monitoring will be developed at the regional and national levels.”

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

Nonetheless, that process will now begin to play out under the auspices of the IAEG, starting at the Mexico City meeting. In its annual meeting, the Statistical Commission did mandate the establishment of a working group on data disaggregation within the IAEG, but the efficacy of that effort remains unclear as past working groups under the commission have been seen as ineffectual.

Citizen data

Others are questioning why the indicators discussion continues to focus almost exclusively on official statistics, at any level.

“What happens at the IAEG meeting this week in Mexico City will do much to allow governments to begin planning the mammoth process of implementing the SDGs and reporting on their progress.”

With governments expressing concern around the capacity strengthening that will be required to facilitate SDGs monitoring, civil society groups note that the same technologies that are propelling the data revolution are empowering citizens with new capacities for oversight and data creation. This could allow, for instance, a health NGO to report on district- or even neighbourhood-level statistics in a way that could bolster or watchdog official findings.

[See: Can geospatial technology lead to a development ‘data revolution’?]

“The key isn’t so much the details of the indicators as ensuring that governments are committed to a diverse source of data to track progress — not just national statistical offices acting as gatekeepers but a broader multistakeholder approach,” said Jack Cornforth with DataShift, a project of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

The Statistical Commission did acknowledge other sources of data outside of official statistics — a key development for civil society groups. It also noted that “when sources and methodologies other than national statistical offices … are used, they will be reviewed and agreed by national statistics authorities and presented in a transparent manner.”

For Cornforth, who expressed frustration over the IAEG’s lack of engagement with civil society thus far, this raises a question on whether the process going forward will be more open.

[See: How can we ensure Habitat III delivers on citizen priorities?]

“What we want to know is how that process is going to work in practice,” Cornforth said. “The IAEG is going to need to be more inclusive regarding nongovernmental voices if this is going to be about more than keeping civil society data out of the official reporting process.”

Finally, implementation

This is a lot for a technical group to wade into, and resolution on many of these sticky issues won’t be quick to come. Nonetheless, the IAEG’s Mexico City meeting is set to be a key one for the forward-looking process it will set in place.

Much of the IAEG’s meeting will be devoted to creating a “tier” system for all of the approved indicators. This will establish which of the 230-plus indicators are ready and available for immediate use, which are almost ready, and which remain highly contentious or undecided in terms of agreed-upon methodology. Resolution on this latter category could take several years, observers say.

Either way, finalization of this tiering strategy will do much to indicate what can be expected from national governments over the coming year. Indeed, what happens in Mexico City will allow governments to begin planning the mammoth process of implementing the SDGs and reporting on their progress.

[See: Local linchpins: Mayors commit to the SDGs]

For instance, national governments that are keen to move on the new SDGs framework can now start to create ministerial task forces and other bodies aimed at taking stock of where their own development programmes and monitoring priorities stand in relation to the new indicators.

This is also where a long-simmering danger arises. The scope and complexity of the SDGs has long led supporters to worry that governments will simply pick and choose among the framework’s mandates — perhaps focusing on areas in which they’re already working or seeing success, rather than areas in which they’re lagging behind.

Either way, countries will only begin formally reporting on their implementation progress in 2017, at an annual reporting session to be held mid-year. Yet observers will get a sneak peek at this process this summer, as more than 20 countries have agreed to voluntarily submit to the reporting regime a year early. That process should yield important initial feedback on how this massive process is going to work on the ground.

Meanwhile, implementation and reporting preparations at the subnational level are also proceeding.

“The questions that keep coming up at the city level are around data — what are we currently measuring, what is the baseline? And on the basis of that, what are the gaps and opportunities, and where can we consolidate?” said SDSN’s Espey, whose office is working with five cities on SDGs implementation.

“That iterative process will happen everywhere, and it’s important for academics and civil society to keep pushing them to be more ambitious,” she said. “It’s very easy to say these three goals overlap with what we’re already doing, so it’s important for civil society to say, ‘You’re falling short here. This is what you should be prioritizing.’”

Meanwhile, an important opportunity for further clarifying the SDG indicators also exists in the run-up to this year’s U. N. conference on cities, Habitat III. That event is supposed to come out with a new 20-year global strategy on urbanization, and supporters are hoping to use the opportunity to jumpstart SDGs implementation at the cities level. Citiscope will be looking at interlinkages between the SDGs indicators and post-Habitat III monitoring in the coming months, as thinking on that strategy evolves.

“We are really hoping that Habitat III will be positioned as an SDG-implementation conference,” Espey said. “It needs to be seen by the political and diplomatic community as the first major opportunity for implementation of these goals.”

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