1 December 2015
Moving from Gray to Green: Identifying the SDG Indicators
Photo by IISD/ENB | Pamela Chasek
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The indicators through which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be assessed will provide the final piece of the SDG package.

The indicators through which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to be assessed will provide the final piece of the SDG package. The 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets were adopted in September 2015, but the indicators are currently being developed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs). This Policy Update addresses the role and importance of the indicators and how are they being identified.

Indicators: An Integral Part of the Post-2015 Package

The SDGs are broad. They start with words both lofty and vague, like “ensure,” “promote,” “reduce,” “build” and “achieve.” Overall, the Goals seek to be aspirational, as instructed by the mandate that the international community set for itself at Rio+20.

Making each of these aspirations more specific, each Goal has a set of targets. The targets illustrate a few forms that the Goal’s achievement should take, but they still do not go into the specifics for how it will be achieved. For example, SDG 3 is to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” and target 3.9 calls for the international community to “substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination.”

The benchmarks through which the targets will be measured, which some assert will provide the real “how” of fulfilling the Goals themselves, are currently being identified. Proposed indicators for SDG target 3.9, for example, call for measuring and reporting on the “population in urban areas exposed to outdoor air pollution levels above WHO guideline values” or measuring “mortality rate attributed to household and ambient air pollution.”

The IAEG-SDGs was created in March 2015 by the UN Statistical Commission to identify the SDG indicators, and is composed of statistical officials from 28 UN Member States. It was mandated with developing the list of indicators by March 2016. Having held its first meeting in New York in June 2015, and its second meeting in Bangkok in October 2015, in addition to consultations, the IAEG-SDGs is now part-way through its process to complete the “package” (goals, targets and indicators) that the intergovernmental community envisioned when it agreed to develop Goals for the post-2015 period.

What will the indicators bring to the SDG package? Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, who also served as Co-Chair of the Open Working Group on the SDGs and Co-Facilitator of the intergovernmental negotiation process on the post-2015 development agenda, recently stressed the need to get the indicators right because, as he emphasized, they are “truly where the rubber meets the road in implementing the 2030 Agenda.” Indeed, most agree that without the right indicators, it will be challenging to measure progress on the SDGs. At the same time, some have noted that inadequate indicators could undermine implementation of the programmes and initiatives needed to achieve the SDGs.

Identifying the Indicators

Initially, the statistical community cautioned against adopting a large number of global indicators. They expressed concern about the burden that National Statistical Offices (NSOs) would face if required to collect data on one or more indicators for each of the 169 targets, and they called for a limit of 100 global indicators total. On closer examination, however, UN agencies and others have recognized disadvantages to this approach, given that some of the targets are multi-issue, effectively serving as multiple targets in one. Target 3.9, for example, addresses air, water and soil pollution, each of which warrant their own indicator, according to experts speaking at the first IAEG-SDGs meeting. Similar challenges are presented by target 5.3, which addresses both child marriage and female genital mutilation, target 5.5 on women’s participation in “all levels” of decision-making in political, economic and public life, and target 11.6 covering both waste management and air quality. As the IAEG-SDGs has dug into its work, it has realized that keeping the indicator set to approximately 100 indicators would not fully capture the complexity of the 2030 Agenda.

The IAEG-SDGs is now considering a much larger list of approximately 225 proposed indicators. The second meeting of the IAEG-SDGs, in Bangkok, Thailand, in late October 2015, reviewed a proposed list of indicators with the aim of categorizing all options as “green” (generally agreed) or “gray” (needs further discussion). By the conclusion of the three-day meeting, the Group had ranked 159 indicators as green, and 65 as gray. The IAEG-SDGs invited comments on all proposed indicators for three days at the beginning of November, and must now sift through the input. It is expected to follow up on areas where more clarity is needed by consulting with the relevant UN agencies.

Apart from reaching consensus on much of the indicator proposal, and setting up a consultation on those 159 “generally agreed” indicators, the Bangkok meeting also produced a work plan for the rest of the indicator development process. First, the Group will focus on finalizing the green indicators and will address the need for data disaggregation. The Bangkok meeting agreed that SDG indicators should be disaggregated, where relevant, by income, gender, age, ethnicity, migration status, disability, geographic location or other characteristics, and the Group has been called on to highlight the necessity of disaggregation in its report. Many speakers have noted the importance of disaggregated data for addressing inequality in all Goals, and this will be an additional challenge for countries who will already struggle to address so many indicators.

The IAEG-SDGs set an ambitious agenda for the rest of 2015. Between 30 November and 7 December, it will circulate its draft report among IAEG-SDGs members. The report will then be finalized on 7-16 December, with some indicators expected to be updated based on the outcome of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Between 1 December 2015 and 15 February 2016, the IAEG-SDGs will also address the gray indicators. According to the mandate laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the global indicator framework to be developed by the IAEG-SDGs should be agreed by the UNSC at its 47th session, which is scheduled to take place on 8-11 March 2016. This framework must then be adopted by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN General Assembly. Lisa Bersales, IAEG-SDGs Co-Chair, during the closing session of the meeting in Bangkok, anticipated that the Group might need more time than the current schedule provides for. A few days later, during an UNSC briefing on the development of SDG global indicators on 5 November 2015, UNSC Chair John Pullinger told UN Member States that while the IAEG-SDGs is required to produce a proper proposal for the UNSC in March, it is likely to take the form of “Indicators 1.0.”

Reactions to Preliminary Indicator List

The IAEG-SDGs’ longer list of proposed indicators captures more of the complexity of the SDGs and their targets, which has advantages and disadvantages. On the latter, it increases the capacity challenges for National Statistics Offices (NSOs). As emphasized by many high-level speakers at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September, the ability to measure progress for all in an agenda that seeks to “leave no one behind,” and the data revolution that this process will require, is an essential component for the 2030 Agenda. Many have emphasized that, once the indicators are adopted, countries will need to build the capacity to produce the necessary data – ideally, disaggregated – to inform both global and national indicators. This endeavor might be facilitated with the support of the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for post-2015 monitoring, which was created during UNSC 46 to provide strategic leadership for the SDG implementation process “as it concerns statistical monitoring and reporting” and foster capacity-building, partnership and coordination for post-2015 monitoring.

Benefits of an expanded indicator set, meanwhile, include stronger potential to match the ambition of the targets agreed by governments earlier this year. But for some participants at the Bangkok meeting, the ambition level is not yet adequate. Civil society organizations noted that the proposed indicators for SDG 10 on inequalities fail to measure either the process or outcomes required. They also expressed concern that the indicators proposed for Goals 16 and 17 “condense” these SDGs. Calling the list of 159 green indicators “controversial,” Social Watch expressed concern that some “substantially rewrite key aspects of the consensus” contained in the 2030 Agenda.

The creation of the indicators was originally conceived as a “technical” process. However, the indicators must not only be technically feasible, but also meet the ambition of their respective targets. How will the IAEG-SDGs confirm whether the indicator set provides a faithful measure of each target?

UN Member States have expressed their desire to bring political oversight to the process. During a UNSC briefing for Member States immediately following the Bangkok meeting, Brazil said the indicators must not reinterpret the SDG targets or reduce their scope, and cautioned the IAEG-SDGs about the “delicate balance between technical consistency and political coherence” with the 2030 Agenda. Other delegates stressed the importance of transparency of the process to develop the indicators, and suggested pursuing input from other actors, such as ECOSOC and the UN’s regional economic commissions. Once the UNSC’s consideration of the indicator proposal is forwarded to the UNGA and ECOSOC, governments will have an opportunity to assess the indicators’ alignment with the political ambition of the SDGs.

Are we nearing the end, or the real beginning?

One lesson that has emerged from the IAEG-SDGs’ process is that the eventual indicators will determine not just the measurement of the targets and their respective Goals, but also the definition of the Goals. In this light, it is not surprising that the largely unknown UNSC has received greater scrutiny than usual.

The UNSC has indicated that the IEAG-SDGs could continue to operate after March 2016, providing technical advice as long as necessary. There is indeed much to be done to convert the remaining “gray” indicators to “green,” and to confirm that the green indicators represent a real consensus. In this case, the IAEG-SDGs’ proposal of indicators may represent, as UNSC Chair Pullinger said when briefing UN Member States, “just the start of interacting between the technical and political processes, so we get it right.”

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