A Bold Call for Action Needed on Measuring SDG Indicators
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When the UN Statistical Commission met in March 2020 for its annual session, it missed an important opportunity to urge countries to monitor the global SDG indicators.

The Commission’s open invitation for countries to use “alternative” indicators may have serious consequences for global SDG reporting, blurring the boundaries between the roles of legislator and statistician.

With a little over ten years left until the end of 2030, and an unenviable track record so far, half-hearted efforts and mixed messages will not get us to the finish line.

The global SDG indicator framework, which is the foundation of the 2030 Agenda’s mutual accountability edifice, continues to have its value undermined by those who should champion it most. Consider blood donation campaigns. In most countries of the world, donating blood is voluntary. To raise donations, governments and health agencies traditionally appeal to social responsibility and a sense of civic solidarity, sometimes even providing incentives.

Imagine instead a scenario where the principal pitch-line of a donation campaign was that it remains a “voluntary” initiative, and citizens can always find “alternative” ways to express their civic responsibility. The likely result would be to discourage the noble action of blood donation.

This resembles the situation we are witnessing with the global SDG indicator framework. Following the most pessimistic declaration to date by the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in September 2019, in which it noted with great alarm that the world is “off track” to meeting most of the SDGs, the response by the UN Statistical Commission at its latest session on 3-6 March 2020 was to tepidly “reiterate that the application of the global indicator framework is a voluntary and country-led process and that alternative or complementary indicators for national and subnational levels of monitoring will be developed at national level on the basis of national priorities, realities, capacities and circumstances.”

The SDGs are a shared responsibility that is articulated in concrete actions, measured first and foremost by the global SDG indicators.

Why does the Commission take pains to repeat that the global indicator framework is a voluntary process, and why is it sanctioning the use of alternative indicators?

Importance of Monitoring the Global Indicators

The development and review of the global SDG indicator framework has been an arduous process that has lasted over five years and required the concerted effort of the entire international statistical community. The Commission’s seemingly paradoxical approach of downplaying its importance may be the result of objections from a small number of countries to certain SDG indicators or to their methodological specifications. Rather than tackle this handful of cases head-on, the Commission appears to have preferred portraying the entire SDG indicator framework as less binding, including allowing for “alternative” indicators and continuing to refer to it as “work in progress.”

Nobody is debating the fact the 2030 Agenda as a whole, and the SDG indicators in particular, are a voluntary commitment. But by constantly reiterating the voluntary nature of the global indicator framework, without advocating for its use for the purpose of global monitoring, the UN Statistical Commission – the highest intergovernmental decision-making body in statistics – sends an ambiguous message to countries that risks doing a disservice to the 2030 Agenda.

In our previous article published on this blog, we highlighted how poor SDG data are leading to poor implementation of the 2030 Agenda’s global commitments. In that article, we also suggested a number of pragmatic measures to tackle the huge data gaps, beginning with the need for the UN Statistical Commission to urge countries to monitor the global SDG indicator framework. Unfortunately, when the Commission met in March 2020 for its annual session, it missed this opportunity.

Alternative Indicators, Risky Substitutions

The Commission’s open invitation for countries to use “alternative” indicators may have serious consequences for global SDG reporting. To some readers, the terms alternative and complementary may at first glance appear almost equivalent. However, there is a profound difference between the two. To complement the global indicator framework with regional and/or national indicators means that countries should ostensibly report global indicators as the starting point, yet they are also free to deploy additional indicators for more specific purposes. By contrast, suggesting that “alternative” indicators can be developed effectively gives countries a blank cheque to substitute global indicators with different national indicators.

As we also noted in our previous article, alternative national indicators are invariably incomparable with global indicators, and this directly undermines the principle of mutual accountability on which the 2030 Agenda is built. There are no established criteria or procedures for determining when and how to substitute global indicators with national indicators, which leaves the door open to arbitrary choices. More importantly, when countries do not produce the official global indicators at national level, it becomes impossible to compile regional and global aggregates and thereby gain a sense of the world’s progress towards implementing the SDGs.

By allowing countries to develop “alternative” indicators, the UN Statistical Commission has overlooked associated risks, as well as the sage advice of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the Millennium Development Goal indicators (IAEG-MDG) – the predecessor mechanism to today’s IAEG-SDG. In its seminal report on Lessons Learned from MDG Monitoring from a Statistical Perspective, the IAEG-MDG noted one of the key weaknesses of the MDG monitoring framework was the fact that discrepancies between national and international data, due to, among others, different methodologies, definitions, different choice of data sources, or time gap in release dates, created problems at the national level and tension in the international statistical community.”   

The other challenge with using “alternative” instead of “complementary” indicators is that it may amount to a reinterpretation of UN Resolution 70/1 (by which the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development). Paragraph 75 states that: “global indicators…will be complemented by indicators at the regional and national levels which will be developed by Member States.” 

The term “alternative” does not figure at all in the 2030 Agenda or its associated UNGA resolution. In introducing this term, with the real and not merely semantic implications explained above, the UN Statistical Commission has set a questionable precedent by blurring the boundaries between the roles of legislator and statistician.

Time is Running Out to Measure SDG Indicators

With a little over ten years left until the end of 2030, and an unenviable track record so far, half-hearted efforts and mixed messages will not get us to the finish line. A bold and unambiguous statement is needed to remind all actors that the SDGs are a shared responsibility that is articulated in concrete actions, which are measured, first and foremost, by the global SDG indicators.

The authors of this guest article are Pietro Gennari, Chief Statistician of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), and Dorian Kalamvrezos Navarro, Programme Advisor in the Office of the Chief Statistician, FAO. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the FAO.


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