4 June 2015
SDG Group Discusses Indicator Selection, Way Forward
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The First Meeting of the UN Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) addressed the Group's methods of work, considerations for the indicator framework, concerns about specific indicators, and the way forward.

The IAEG-SDGs was established by the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) at its 46th session in March 2015 to develop an indicator framework for the monitoring of the goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda at the global level, and to support its implementation.

unstats2 June 2015: The First Meeting of the UN Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) addressed the Group’s methods of work, considerations for the indicator framework, concerns about specific indicators, and the way forward. The IAEG-SDGs was established by the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) at its 46th session in March 2015, to develop an indicator framework for the monitoring of the goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda at the global level, and to support its implementation.

The Group’s membership includes 28 representatives of national statistical offices (NSOs). Representatives of regional commissions, regional and international agencies, academia and civil society, and non-member countries can participate as observers.

The IAEG-SDGs’ first meeting convened at UN Headquarters in New York, US, on 1-2 June 2015. The Group elected Lisa Grace S. Bersales, National Statistician, Philippine Statistics Authority, and Fabiola Riccardini, Italian National Institute of Statistics, as Co-Chairs for a one-year term.

Participants stressed the high importance of the Group’s work. In his opening remarks to the Group, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo also stressed the important work it will undertake in elaborating the indicators to measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One participant said inadequate indicators will undermine implementation of the programmes needed to achieve the SDGs. Another noted that although the IAEG is a technical process, it takes place within a political framework, and is “very sensitive” for the organization: “everything that takes place here is of maximum importance.”

Based on the discussions at the meeting, UN Statistics Division (UNSD) Director Stefan Schweinfest said the Secretariat will propose a timetable of work, including dates and specific outcomes and documentation, and share for review a summary of recommendations and proposals form the meeting.

Schweinfest also reflected that the process is “a bit of a construction site,” and outlined ways the Secretariat will learn from the meeting for the future work of the Group, including by “going out of our way” to keep all Member States informed.

Discussion of Indicator Framework

The Secretariat reminded participants that leading up to the first meeting of the IAEG-SDGs, UN Member States agreed during the post-2015 intergovernmental negotiation (IGN) process that the indicators: must directly respond to the goals and targets agreed in the Open Working Group on SDGs and their level of ambition; must not undermine or re-interpret the targets; must cover all targets, including targets on means of implementation; must give equal weight to all targets and maintain the balance achieved; and should not introduce any new or contentious issues. There was also consensus that the number of global indicators should be limited and include multi-purpose indicators that address several targets at the same time.

During the discussion on the indicator framework, IAEG-SDGs participants strove to establish clarity on the Group’s purpose and the concepts behind the indicator framework. They noted the need for consensus on the rationale behind all the goals and targets, to allow political processes to properly evaluate the Group’s work.

It also was recalled that, at the February 2015 UNSC expert group meeting, participants agreed on three tiers of indicators: 1) indicators for which methodology and data exist; 2) indicators for which methodology exists but data is not available; and 3) indicators for which methodology requires further work and no data is available.

They discussed that the February meeting also had agreed that the indicators need to meet the following criteria: relevant; methodologically sound; measurable; easy to communicate and access; and limited in number and outcome focused at the global level.

Delegates to the IAEG-SDGs raised: the need to agree first on a global statistical framework to deal with cross-cutting issues, address gaps and overlaps, and have fewer indicators; the need for disaggregated data; the need to encompass environmental, social development, economic development and governance indicators; the challenges of collecting data, especially on sensitive issues, including sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity or disability; and the availability of existing frameworks and indicators.

Discussion of Specific Indicators

The discussion of specific indicators was based on a document distributed by the UNSD, titled ‘The first list of proposed priority indicators,’ which identifies one “priority indicator” per target, notes the indicator’s tier, and specifies any other targets it could measure.

The document, released late in the week before the meeting, was the subject of discussion and some confusion during the meeting. Some delegations had prepared comments based on the March version of the list of possible indicators. Some argued that NSOs did not have enough lead time to review the document. Others expressed concern that the conceptual framework and prioritization was not clear. Member States, regional groups, and UN and other international agencies did not believe that the priority goals reflected their inputs into the process. UNDP suggested making use of the existing mechanism of the UN Technical Support Team (TST).

More specifically, concern was expressed that the indicators have to be universal, but some are more focused on developing countries. Some commented that the priority indicators did not meet the criteria set out. Numerous specific proposals were made for additional indicators.

Another concern was expressed that, because some targets actually contain many targets, one indicator per target is insufficient. UN Women, UN Habitat, UNFPA, UNESCO and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution expressed concern about selecting only a single indicator for composite targets, such as: 3.9 – air, water and soil pollution; target 5.3 on child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM); target 5.5 on women’s participation in national and international levels of governance; and target 11.6 on waste management and air quality.

On using multipurpose indicators, one Major Group representative cautioned against being “too reductive,” noting the distinction between targets 3.7 and 5.6, for example, on women’s rights.

UNESCO said that indicators with more readily available information could be used on a temporary basis, until better ones are developed. He suggested the IAEG should take a decision on how to prioritize and select indicators.

Several other agency representatives said the discussion was not “well informed,” and proposed that indicators must be evaluated based on clear information.

Discussion of Methods of Work

In the discussion of the Group’s methods of work, participants addressed: the last-minute distribution of the meeting documents and the late announcement of this meeting, which several participants said prevented their NSOs from being able to attend; the length and frequency of face-to-face meetings; and communication between the Secretariat, NSOs, and UN permanent missions in New York, among other issues.

Participants noted linkages between the technical process and the political one, saying the work of the technical experts reflects on and feeds the political process, and must not lose sight of its “political guidance.” They said the Group also must move in tandem with the High-Level Group on SDG Indicators, which is expected to be established soon. It was also noted that a regional consultation process would take place as part of the development of indicators.

Brazil said it was “not comfortable” with the governance and methods of work of the process so far, highlighting the need for transparency, inclusiveness and participation.

Brazil, Indonesia and Argentina said documents circulated by the UN Statistics Division should be copied to UN permanent missions in New York, although this is not common practice for the statistics community.

Indonesia asked for clarity on the conduct of the meetings, including whether observers can take the floor. Major Group representatives also called for clarity on civil society involvement at all stages of the Group’s work.

Participants discussed how decisions will be taken. It was tentatively agreed to try to achieve consensus, but if not, the group may have to resort to a vote.

Discussion of Way Forward

In discussion on the way forward for the Group’s work, participants discussed a proposal, originally voiced by the US and Netherlands and supported by others (including France, UNFPA, Mexico, and UK), to work in smaller groups on issues arising from the meeting, for example: interlinkages among the indicators, possibly including multipurpose indicators; the general statistical framework and organization of goals and targets; and the criteria for judging each indicator.

After discussing concerns about this approach, raised by Egypt, Brazil and others, regarding capacity constraints on developing countries to participate in additional small groups, and other reservations, it was suggested that the sub-groups could be considered “work streams” and conduct their work electronically, rather than in person. With some participants unable to take a decision without the input of their NSOs, it was agreed that the Co-Chairs would facilitate further consultations, lasting up to two weeks, regarding the creation of two work streams. The leadership of the two work streams was left undecided.

On the timeline, Co-Chair Riccardini said the UNGA meeting in September 2015 is an opportunity to demonstrate statisticians’ contributions to the process, and that a final proposal could follow in March 2016. It was proposed that in June, the Group would finalize a summary of its first meeting, for Member States’ review at the IGN meeting on 22-25 June. A clean version of the indicators list would be provided by 19 June. By the IGN’s July meeting, first drafts would be prepared on the two topics of the work streams, as a basis for their electronic work. In August, the three items would be further advanced, and additional consultations would take place ahead of the IAEG-SDGs’ second meeting in October, with all documentation issued by 15 September.

Cuba expressed concern about the “rush” to produce a list of indicators by September, since they are not needed until March 2016. Indonesia asked for more information on what would be ready by September, suggesting that the political process had not decided on a presentation of indicators to leaders in September. The US suggested that the list of indicators could be reserved as a “background document” until a fuller discussion can take place following discussion by the two work streams.


Concluding the meeting, Schweinfest said “it has not been an easy meeting,” given the different backgrounds of participants, but that the meeting had begun to bring everyone onto the same page. He also observed that while the work must move quickly, “we also have to do things carefully and properly.” He highlighted the need to improve information sharing, including on the political side of the process, and to be inclusive.

Schweinfest noted the preliminary proposal of 12-16 October 2015 for second meeting of the Group. [IISD RS Sources] [IAEG-SDGs Website] [IAEG-SDG Terms of Reference] [IEAG-SDG Members] [Provisional Agenda for First Meeting] [Priority Indicators List] [IAEG-SDG Methods of Work] [Suggested Process for Selecting Indicators] [IISD RS Story on UNSC 46]

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