World Bank Paper Tests Methodology for Prioritizing SDGs, Indicators
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A paper authored by staff from the World Bank Group explains the concepts of SDG proximity, centrality and density to help countries prioritize action on specific Goals and SDG indicators.

The most "central" indicators focus on energy access and use of improved drinking water sources, while the least "central" areas include poverty and climate action.

The authors caution against "writing off" an SDG or indicator as irrelevant simply because it features limited connections.

June 2018: The Office of the World Bank Group’s Senior Vice President for 2030 Agenda, UN Relations and Partnerships has outlined a methodology for helping policy makers to prioritize SDG targets in their development plans. The authors argue that how a country will perform on a specific SDG indicator is dependent on progress on other SDGs, and they introduce the concepts of “SDG proximity,” “SDG centrality” and “SDG density” to consider specific indicators.

The Policy Research Working Paper titled, ‘Sustainable Development Goals Diagnostics An Application of Network Theory and Complexity Measures to Set Country Priorities,’ uses a database on SDG progress, constructed using data from the UN’s Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators (IAEG‐SDGs), the World Bank’s SDG database (WB‐SDGs), and additional external data. The database includes the majority of “Tier 1” indicators, as categorized by the IAEG-SDGs.

The authors posit that “if a set of positive development outcomes are observed frequently coexisting across countries, then there are strong commonalities” in their underlying delivery mechanisms. The methodology considers 1) country capacities such as skills, infrastructure, technology, institutions and natural resources; 2) countries’ SDG delivery mechanisms, whether intentionally or unintentionally created; and 3) the resulting observable development outcomes.

The authors note that the extent to which capacities can be used between SDGs is dependent on their proximity to one another. They define “SDG proximity” as the conditional probability of two indicators being “successful” together, a function of the commonalities shared. For example, the indicator “number of physicians per 1,000 people” is likely to have more commonalities with—and be closer in proximity to—an indicator to measure malnutrition than it would with one on marine protected areas.

If a country performs well on a Goal or indicator with many “proximities,” the country is likely to also achieve progress in others.

The sum of a Goal’s proximities provides its measure of “SDG centrality,” the paper explains. If a country performs well on a Goal or indicator with high centrality, the country is likely to also achieve progress in others. SDGs 7 (affordable and clean energy) and 6 (clean water and sanitation) are calculated to be the most “central,” while Goals 1 (no poverty) and 13 (climate action) are calculated to be the least central.

The highest-ranked indicators in terms of centrality relate to access to electricity, and populations using improved drinking water sources. The least central indicators address varied themes, including gender parity, disaster risk reduction strategies, education, time spent on unpaid domestic work, employment in agriculture, malaria incidence rates, and the number of breeds classified as being not-at-risk of extinction, among others. However, the authors caution against “writing off” an SDG or indicator as irrelevant simply because it features limited connections.

To prioritize actions, the authors cite the importance of an SDG’s “density” in a country. This is defined on the basis of the Goal’s proximities to others in which the country is successful. It will be easier to make progress on a high-density SDG than a low-density SDG. The paper suggests that governments can use the concepts of SDG proximity, centrality and density to redeploy SDG delivery mechanisms or other capacities, in order to maximize impact.

The authors highlight that other recent work also focuses on SDG interconnectedness, the probability of over-performing on a specific target given progress on others, and whether achievement of some targets promotes or accelerates progress on others. These include recent efforts by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), David Le Blanc for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and implementation of the Country Development Diagnostics Framework.

Mahmoud Mohieldin leads the World Bank Group’s unit for the 2030 Agenda, UN Relations and Partnerships. [Publication: Sustainable Development Goals Diagnostics: An application of network theory and complexity measures to set country priorities]

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