15 October 2020
SDG Implementation and Accountability: Bring on the Data
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This brief takes a broad view of the implementation story that official data sets can tell us, by focusing on the SDG progress reports released each year by the UN Secretary-General.

The annual reports are as much a reflection on the availability of globally comparable data as they are a snapshot of SDG progress.

Next week the UN will hold a virtual UN World Data Forum, featuring the expertise of statisticians and sustainable development professionals from around the world. The Forum will focus attention on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s role as an accountability framework, as experts showcase the diverse ways that SDG progress  can be measured. They are sure to stress the need for identifying, collecting, disaggregating, and analyzing appropriate data as a crucial component for SDG implementation, to ensure that good examples and laggards can be identified, and course corrections can be applied.

Over the past five years, stories in the SDG Knowledge Hub have reveled the multiplicity of approaches, tools, and projects underway to ensure that robust data sets are available and used to drive the SDGs forward. In this brief, we take a broad view of the implementation story that official data sets can tell us, by focusing on the SDG progress reports released each year by the UN Secretary-General.

Every May for the past five years, the UN Secretary-General has issued an SDG Progress Report ahead of the annual July session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The reports draw on the latest available data for the indicators contained in the global SDG indicator framework, which is maintained by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (DESA) Statistics Division, with input from the UN agencies that serve as “custodians” for the indicator data. These data are provided by UN Member States and, as a result, the annual reports are as much a reflection on the availability of globally comparable data as they are a snapshot of SDG progress.

In Year 1, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Report 2016, which helped to set a benchmark for the 2030 Agenda’s 15-year implementation period. “We are off to a good start,” Ban observed. He said the report showed the need for targeted action to address those who are the furthest behind, first. The Secretary-General also underscored the importance of data and indicators on all groups, particularly those that often  go uncounted.

In Year 2, the SDG Progress Report provided a more robust report of progress on each of the 17 Global Goals. Nonetheless, the report emphasized that the amount of data and statistics needed to track SDG progress poses a major challenge to national and international statistical systems. It highlighted the efforts of the global statistical community to modernize and strengthen statistical systems. 

In Year 3, the Goal-by-Goal reporting continued to be more detailed. Of particular note, the report indicated that, after a prolonged decline, world hunger (SDG 2) appeared to be on the rise again, and the prospect of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030 had become more difficult. For Goal 7 (affordable and clean energy), the report said ensuring access for all “has come one step closer,” and noted improvements in industrial energy efficiency. On Goal 13 (climate action), the report noted that 2017 was one of the three warmest years on record, and the world continued to experience rising sea levels. On Goal 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), the report indicated progress in regulations to promote public access to information, “albeit slowly,” as well as in strengthening national human rights institutions.

Despite the increased number of indicators that could be used in the analysis for this 2018 report, the report still was not able to reflect all of the SDGs’ 169 targets, due to lack of data or methodological development on some indicators. The report stressed the need for quality, accessible, open, timely, and disaggregated data, brought about through strengthened capacities of national statistical systems.

In Year 4, Heads of State and Government prepared to meet for the first high-level stocktaking of the 2030 Agenda since its adoption. Ahead of this first ‘SDG Summit,’ the UN produced a special edition of the report covering the first four-year cycle of the 2030 Agenda. The 2019 report found that progress had been made on several SDGs and targets, including:

  • a continued drop in extreme poverty (SDG 1),
  • a continued decrease in child mortality rates (SDG 3),
  • an increase in gender-responsive budgeting (SDG 5),
  • increased access to electricity and improvements in energy efficiency (SDG 7),
  • a return to the unemployment levels from before the 2008 financial crisis (SDG 8),
  • a decrease in the proportion of the urban population living in slums (SDG 11), and
  • a doubling of the proportion of waters under national jurisdiction covered by marine protected areas (MPAs) since 2010 (SDG 14).

The 2019 special report also recorded slow progress on many Goals and targets, including an increase in hunger and childhood malnutrition (SDG 2) and the loss of biodiversity at “an alarming rate” (SDGs 14 and 15). The report indicated that the continued increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (SDG 13) meant that greater urgency and ambition were required, particularly on climate change. On SDG 4 (quality education), hundreds of million children and youth were out of school, and more than 50% of children and adolescents did not meet minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics. On SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), billions lacked safe water, sanitation, and handwashing facilities. Millions were deprived of security and rights (SDG 16), inequalities persisted along urban-rural and other lines (SDG 10), and the report cautioned that there was “no way” the world could fulfill the 2030 Agenda without achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls (SDG 5).

The SDG Progress Report for Year 5 drew on data available as of April 2020. Reflecting on the worrisome trends highlighted in the special overview edition in 2019, the report shows that the world was already addressing multiple vulnerabilities. The 2020 SDG Progress Report focuses on where the COVID-19 pandemic “imperils progress” on each SDG. In particular, it reports that the least developed countries (LDCs), land-locked developing countries (LLDCs), small island developing States (SIDS), and countries in humanitarian or fragile situations “stand to be hit hardest” due to fragile health systems, limited social protection coverage, limited financial and other resources, vulnerability to shocks, and dependence on international trade.

We have a new vantage point for anticipating how the next SDG Progress Report will look. Due in May 2021, the report for Year 6 of the 2030 Agenda will no doubt focus on a year’s worth of impacts of the global pandemic on SDG implementation. Its findings will no doubt be sobering, but they may also help to show the way forward.

At the 2020 HLPF, the Secretary-General said the antidote for some of the pandemic’s worst impacts already exists in the form of the SDGs. The data that make these assessments possible, and can help to show where lessons and best cases may exist, will help to monitor the recovery process in a manner that would not be possible if the SDGs had not been adopted in 2015. The data will provide the evidence necessary to help keep governments on track for the future that we still want.

By Faye Leone, IISD, and Lynn Wagner, IISD

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