Are We Serious About Achieving the SDGs? A Statistician’s Perspective
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Gaps in global reporting thwart the international community’s ability to take effective action and catalyze the transformative changes required to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

We are not measuring the SDG indicators, and this is one of the crucial reasons we are not on track to achieving the SDG targets.

FAO has proposed a new, common data validation platform that would relieve countries from the deluge of data validation requests coming from different international organizations using varied approaches.

Global SDG monitoring is not yet taken seriously enough by countries, regional and international organizations, and donors. This is one of the main restraints on progress in achieving the SDGs.

Data are a prerequisite for taking effective decisions on the policies and investments needed to drive the transformative changes envisioned by the 2030 Agenda. Internationally comparable data, in particular, are fundamental not only for assessing the effectiveness of development interventions, but also to determine where and how to intervene in the first place. This is why SDG indicators are considered the bedrock of the 2030 Agenda’s mutual accountability edifice.

Countries have been slow to commit to reporting global SDG indicators. Certainly, there is a long list of concrete institutional, operational, financial and capacity constraints that hamper countries’ ability to report on them. We have four times more indicators than we had in the MDG era, with many indicators being completely new or produced outside of the national statistical system. A recent report by Paris21 found even highly developed countries are still not able to report more than 40-50% of the SDG indicators.  

In a misuse of “country ownership,” countries replace global SDG indicators with national proxies, making it impossible to have a common benchmark.

Despite the many real constraints in SDG reporting, countries themselves have been slow in their commitment to measuring SDG indicators. Never mind that the global indicator framework was established by a country-led process – many countries still view it as an imposition by international organizations. In a misuse of the “country ownership” mantra, countries are systematically replacing global SDG indicators with different national proxy indicators, making it impossible to have a common benchmark to assess global progress. National indicators that focus on specific problems faced by each country are essential, but they should complement rather than replace the global indicators (as foreseen in paragraph 75 of the UNGA resolution that endorsed the 2030 Agenda).

Regional organizations too haven’t done enough. A proliferation of regional “SDG indicator” frameworks by Eurostat, CARICOM, the African Union and the Pacific Community, among others, tend to compete with, rather than complement, the global SDG indicator framework. Recent efforts by the African Union to harmonize the different monitoring frameworks are a step in the right direction, although much more must be done.

While the donor community pays lip service to the importance of statistics, few donors are putting their money where their mouths are. Report after report by the OECD, Paris21, SDSN and others show statistics are perennially underfunded, currently attracting a mere 0.34% of total Official Development Assistance (ODA). The funding gap for properly monitoring SDG indicators stands at approximately USD 200 million per year. Efforts to develop a Global Data Funding Facility under the UN Statistical Commission have also faced severe delays. The launch of the Facility has again been deferred to the end of 2020, whereas recent discussions have actually suggested replacing a global structure with a patchwork of smaller sectoral or regional facilities.   

International organizations are not above reproach either. Despite improvements in recent years, countries still need to juggle uncoordinated requests by different international organizations that are often poorly timed and duplicative. Moreoever, little progress has been made in increasing the coverage of SDG indicators via multipurpose household surveys, especially those that are internationally led and funded. According to the Inter-Secretariat Working Group on Household Surveys, about two thirds of global SDG indicators could be monitored through these surveys, yet this only happens for about one third.

All these factors are part of the reason why, four years into the implementation period of the 2030 Agenda, only 44% of SDG indicators have sufficient data for proper global and regional monitoring (‘Tier I’ indicators). These gaps in global reporting thwart the international community’s ability to take effective action and catalyze the transformative changes required to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

As the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) recognized in its September 2019 declaration, we are off-track to achieve the SDGs. Indeed, only one of 38 targets assessed in the UN’s 2019 SDG Progress Report was on track at the global level. An FAO progress report on the SDGs, released ahead of the HLPF’s July 2019 session, similarly highlighted the world is off-track to meet the food and agriculture-related targets. After a prolonged period of progress during the MDG era, the recent upturn in world hunger is particularly alarming.

We are witnessing an inversion of the axiom “what gets measured gets done.” We are not measuring the SDG indicators, and this is one of the crucial reasons we are not on track to achieving the SDG targets.

We stand at a pivotal moment. At current trends, we risk missing the SDGs and potentially squandering the UN’s hard-fought credibility. We cannot let the 2030 Agenda become an empty campaign. This could also jeopardize the possibility of establishing a new global development framework beyond 2030. In the future, we may even become nostalgic for the MDGs, which, although “top-down” and certainly less ambitious, were mostly achieved in the end.

There is no magical solution to overcome all these challenges at once, but there are a number of measures that must be taken immediately to get us back on track. We need a drastic expansion of communication and advocacy to remind countries of the benefits of aligning national and regional monitoring frameworks with the global SDG indicator framework. The UN Statistical Commission and its subsidiary bodies need to send an unequivocal message.

We need a new partnership between national statistical systems and international organizations to overcome the persistent mutual distrust on statistical matters. In this regard, FAO has proposed a new, common data validation platform that would relieve countries from the deluge of data validation requests coming from different international organizations using varied approaches.

We need to revamp the current model of international cooperation for statistics, driven by “twinning arrangements” by which a developed country provides direct technical assistance to a developing country. Such arrangements may have been effective in the past for the transfer of know-how in traditional data domains. They are of dubious use in international statistics, which are grounded on new common standards, methods and classifications, not fully adopted even by developed countries.

Indeed, the disintermediation of international organizations results in fragmented approaches that hinder global SDG reporting. For their part, capacity development initiatives by international organizations can also be significantly improved through greater coordination among agencies and more systematic follow-up by countries.

We must substantially review the priorities of the global partnership for SDG data. Piecemeal donor projects in the data domain run by NGOs or other non-state actors are producing a cacophony of different tools and interfaces, often with the same or similar objectives. These are almost always detached from the national statistical system. A more flexible yet institutional approach is needed to accommodate the needs of different actors while maintaining coherence and the involvement of official data producers.

Undoubtedly, this includes the private sector. Alternative data sources are usually owned by private companies, but data exchange protocols are often missing. We need to address the mutual distrust and the complex transactions between the private sector and national statistical systems pragmatically rather than dogmatically.

With these steps, we should be able to rekindle the data revolution, and more importantly, ensure it translates into a statistical revolution for the SDGs. Only then will we have a chance of getting back on track to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

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.

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