One step forward, two steps back: SDG indicators in the making

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 blog is written by Antonia Wulff, Coordinator: Education & Employment, Education International


I’ve become a complete indicator nerd over the past year – and so should anyone who really cares about Agenda 2030. They may be framed as technical and innocent, but the indicators risk reinterpreting and reducing our beloved SDG goals and targets. While it might seem futile to point out the flaws of a process that is nearing the finishing line, the race to finalise SDG indicators is not over yet.

It might not come as a surprise to anyone that the development of indicators for the SDGs has become complicated. The story so far has seen member states agree that establishing the global indicators is a technical task, and then delegate that task to the UN Statistical Commission. The Commission has, in turn, asked a smaller expert group to propose at least one indicator for each of the 169 targets of the SDGs, to eventually be approved first by ECOSOC and finally by the UN General Assembly.

Our principal concern at the outset was the number of targets referring to two or more elements, which makes it impossible to capture them in one sole indicator. Nobody wants to shoot down a process before it even has taken off, but in fact the statistical community was unqualified for the job at that very moment, given that many targets were technically too weak for statisticians to be able to pick up the work where member states left it. Their expertise was needed only at the next stage, that is to say once political guidance had been given and it was a matter of developing indicators.

Instead, the Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG indicators (IAEG) did a somersault at two key moments. The first time was at their second meeting (October 2015), when all proposed indicators had been categorised either green, yellow or grey, and they chose only to discuss the yellow ones. The second time was during their next meeting (March 2016), when the indicators had been categorised tier I, tier II or tier III, and the expert group focused only on tier III.

The problem was never the categorisation of indicators according to data availability and feasibility, but rather the way it led the expert group to skip a step in the process. Because the IAEG never discussed whether an indicator corresponds directly to a target, whether it actually helps us measure progress, and whether any key components of the target have been left out.

The ‘green’ indicators were never publically debated by the expert group but instead fast-tracked for approval by the Statistical Commission in March 2016. This means that dozens of indicators were implicitly agreed without sufficient consideration of the extent to which they actually measure their target.

It seems as if a monster has been created and has taken on a life of its own: ultimately nobody can be held to account for the decisions that will have been made indirectly – and irreversibly. Many IAEG members acknowledge that there are numerous indicators that fall short of their targets, but reopening them would jeopardise the whole package at a time when there is none left. This is bizarre considering how much time was spent on negotiating every word of every single target.

Perhaps the most sensible thing would have been to start with a comprehensive set of thematic indicators, from which the global ones could then have been selected. Now we have to wait until 2020 for a first review of the global indicators. In the meantime, we have some work to do on national, regional and thematic indicators. Because the lesson from this is that indicators are far from technical only.

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