SDGs indicators: more about politics than statistics

This blog is written by Jan Vandemoortele, Co-architect of the MDGs and critical friend of the SDGs. Read his previous articles for deliver2030.org here.


Statistics can shape the way in which we perceive the world. Numbers have repeatedly been abused to influence public debate.

Health extension worker Elsebeth Aklilu counsels women, who are accompanied by their children, on best nutrition practices, outside the health post in the village of Maderia, in Gemechis, a woreda (district) of Oromia Region, Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Nesbitt

Health extension worker Elsebeth Aklilu counsels women in the village of Maderia, in Oromia Region, Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Nesbitt

This is true for the entire ideological spectrum, but particularly so in recent years to entrench the neoliberal worldview and the power of markets. Suffice to mention the Dow Jones, FTSE 100 and Nikkei, which by being reported daily succeed in reinforcing the grip of the financial markets over our collective psyche. In his book Damned Lies and Statistics (2001), Best points out that ‘people who bring statistics to our attention have reasons for doing so’.

Some statistics are manufactured and manipulated as ammunition for political struggles, although their purpose is hidden behind assertions of objectivity and accuracy. Phony numbers get frequently amplified in the echo chamber of mainstream media. One should never naïvely accept that statistics always reveal truths. More often than not, they are misused to manage our perception rather than to help us understand complex realities. In his book How Numbers Rule the World (2014), Fioramonti argues that numbers are used ‘to control without giving the impression of control […] to rule, without coercion’.

Later this month, the UN Statistical Commission will discuss the SDG indicators as proposed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group. It is thus warranted and timely to take a closer look at the proposed list.

Let’s start with the proposed indicator for target 16.5, which aims to ‘substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms’. The proposed indicator is the ‘percentage of persons who had at least one contact with a public official, who paid a bribe to a public official, or were asked for a bribe by these public officials, in the previous 12 months’. Fortunately, it is marked with an asterisk, meaning that it is still being reviewed by the Expert Group. Why fortunate? Because it purposely puts corruption and bribery in the public sphere, pretending it does not exist in the private sphere. Volkswagen’s ‘diesel-gate’ is just the latest example that corruption and cheating are not the monopoly of the public sector.

The adoption of this particular indicator, which is based on the World Bank’s definition of corruption, can hardly be seen as balanced or unbiased. To be valid, statistical rigor and robustness must rest not only upon the competence of the institution producing the data, but also on its disinterested nature. Corruption and bribery are perceived as a public sector issue because the neoliberal worldview has defined it as such; while corruption and bribery in the corporate and private sectors are disregarded. Eventually, people’s perception will internalize the narrative that the public sector is inefficient and corrupt and needs to be privatized.

Target 2.1 aims to ‘end all forms of malnutrition by 2030’ and the proposed indicators cover stunting (height-for-age) and malnutrition (weight-for-height). The body mass index is not included, although overweight and obesity represent a major public health challenge. Within the next decade, the number of children in the world who suffer from overweight will exceed those who are underweight. Yet, the so-called universal agenda for development for the next 15 years omits obesity. This for political expedience, because high- and middle-income countries prefer to focus on hunger in the least-developed countries rather than to tackle the food industry in their own country.

Target 10.1 aims to tackle inequality – ‘progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average’. Conveniently, both target and indicator are formulated in such a way as to circumvent the issue of inequality. It allows countries to claim to have achieved the target despite rising inequality; by eroding the income share of the middle 50 per cent while that of the top 10 per cent soars unabatedly – a trend re-confirmed by Oxfam’s latest report An Economy for the 1%.

The flawed formulation of the inequality target could easily be addressed by including the Palma ratio (i.e. income share of the top 10 per cent divided by that of the bottom 40 per cent). But the proposed list of SDG indicators does not mention the Palma ratio. For those who argue that this would change the meaning of agreed target, we invite them to look at the proposed indicator for target 1.2, which aims to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion people living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’. The proposed indicator is the ‘proportion of the population living below the national poverty line’, which clearly changes the meaning of the target by letting the money-metric dimension supplant all others.

In short, political and corporate leaders in many member states do not want to measure what is really important, and leadership in international institutions does not dare to challenge them. So they focus on something else – such as ‘data revolution’ and ‘no one left behind’. Do we measure what we want, or do we want what we measure? That is the question.

2 Comments on "SDGs indicators: more about politics than statistics"

  1. The target to ‘end all forms of malnutrition by 2030’ is 2.2. (not 2.1) and the proposed indicators include stunting and wasting (undernutrition) AND overweight in children under 5. So this is a universal agenda for development, although only for one age group and not explicitly obesity. High- and middle-income countries may prefer to focus on hunger in the least-developed countries rather than to tackle the food industry in their own country, but a measure on overweight in children in the world under 5s is now part of this target. There is no indicator proposed on the part of the target to “address the nutritional needs
    of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons”. That is alarming and should be addressed, for all countries.

  2. Barnabé Okouda | February 5, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Reply

    We spend a lot of efforts to define indicators of SDG and how tout measure them, but we have not yet begone thinking about costing. That will the real challenge to Leave No One Behind.

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