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Using SDGTookit's constraint-linked indicators to manage orders of magnitude in decision analyses to support SDGs

John Penrose,
International Development Correspondent,
AgroInfoSys is a public services division of the George Boole Foundation and they will launch a new cloud-based agricultural analytical tools library in Q4, 2019. Amongst therange of applications domains, the toolkit supports agricultural project, programme and policy design. These tools have been developed to improve the transparency and quality of proposals to support Sustainable Development Goals related to agriculture, food security, the nutritional aspects of health, poverty and real incomes inequality.

The general operation of the tools has been covered in another article in this medium.

However, since that review, the library of analytical tools has undergone a complete change in the technologies used as a result of a strategic decision by the George Boole Foundation to maximise operational efficiency and minimise operational costs. This is very much in line with the objective of supporting project, programme and policy designs for Sustainable Development Goal actions in low income countries.

An important challenge created by Agenda 2030 was how to manage information to take decisions related to national level indicators and suitable actions in the form of projects and programmes and supportive policies. This is one of the main reasons why many project teams reported some difficulties, after 2015, with project design by trying to apply the conventional horizontal project cycle frameworks. Up until that time many projects had tended to concentrate on distinct groups of beneficiaries who only represented a reduced proportion of the national groups requiring the same form of support. The national contexts, under such designs, were often incidental and added on at the end of a proposal editing and to be found as dutiful references at the top of proposal Log Frames as statement of the type "in support of policy x". One interpretation of SDGs, which led, in some cases, to SDGs not even being considered in ongoing projects and research programmes, was the assumption that SDGs represented a massive over-reach or balooning of "cross-cutting issues". Cross-cutting issues have often been add-ons to projects whose main objectives were dinstinctly different. This was often the result of donors, in their project proposal guidelines, requiring reference to cross-cutting issues. As a result, reference to such issues sometime degenerated into a cynical inclusion to get past proposal assessor tick lists.

One area of endeavour which might be threatened with isolaton by the SDG "onslaught" is research and development activities where there still remains a predominance of the end results being acknolwedged to be a paper published in a specialised publication as the main measurement of achievement. In the case of SDGs the criterion for success has become our ability to shorten the period between the conceptualization of a research topics and guiding the results into practical applications to benefit sustainable development. This is not easy. However, SDGs are not there to get in the way, but according to national circumstances they can provide researchers with an orientation for applied research towards efforts to help contribute to delivering sustainability in a practical manner. An expanding field will be adaptive research (AR) of state-of-the-art systems (SOAS) associated with technology transfer actions (TTAs). This is prefereable given the short time-base associated the challenge of sustainability and in the particular case of Agenda2030. Cetainly, in terms of public and sector research, funding priority is likely to give more emphasis to TTA.

However, as a result of a realization of the state of the environment and significance of sustainability, the general prioritization of human effort in economic development has changed fundamentally to place sustainability as a permananent fixture at the centre of design efforts for the orientation of economic developent. Some are still adjusting to this fact.

A document which is part of the Boolean Library series, A Boolean Society, is entitled, "Comparative production systems for SDGs - a practical approach to innovation". This provides an example of how the SDGToolkit handles this multi-dimensional analysis referred to and embeds an orientation for research towards practical innovation. The following is a verbatim extract from part of the document:

Production system options and innovation

The current State-of-the-art-systems (SOAS) options include rainfed, irrigated, protected and shifting clearance and use, the Alternative Production Systems (APSs) include any hybrids based on SOAS including lower energy inputs, rotations, water preservation techniques, genetic improvements, enabling production of seed and Technology Transfer Action (TTA) options include such leading edge technologies such as improve seed production, gentypic cleansing of disease or improving disease resistance and introducing biological pest control.
SDGToolkit and agricultural innovation options

SOAS and their associated techniques usually possess well-established benchmarks in terms of number of people required to operate the process, the skills and competence required, the associated unit inputs and the quantities and qualities of output. Therefore the reliability of the data used in reviewing feasibility in a new location in terms of physical quantities and qualities is usually reliable. The analytical issue is more concerned with the reality of input and output quality and prices prices in the location where the innovation is to be introduced. Therefore this economic analysis becomes a first level analysis to obtain an assessment of the potential economic and financial feasibility. Quite often part of a process can prove to undermine a process’s feasibility either because it is too high an investment or the costs involved in terms of resulting unit output costs will not permit compensatory operations. In such cases the component in question can be eliminated so that the output changes but can be further processed deploying a lower cost traditional and labour-intensive technique that also creates employment.

How SDGToolkit manages these analyses

Constraint-linked indicators

In many low income countries there is a lack of adequate data collected on a regular basis or there are specification gaps in the existing ranges of indicators and therefore gaps in defined analytical methods. Examples of the gaps are set out in the article "The utility of SDG indicators". Many indicators are symptomatic or measurements of conditions that are consequences of primary and secondary constraints. Primary constraints are factors that create difficulties in exercising human activities which create gaps in attainment and the conditions or symptoms measured by indicators. However, primary constraints are, in themselves, important indicators which point to the likelihood of gaps in essential provisions. OQSI (Open Quality Standards Initiative) have identified three classes of primary indicators, referred to as global constraints, that help determine any national context with respect to SDGs without any need to refer to conventional indicators. These include:
  • Population size, structure, number of dependents and growth rates (difference between birth and death rates)
  • Income levels and their distribution
  • Inflation at national level
All domain series of SDGToolkit follow a procedural sequence applying analytical tools to improve precision and quality and methodological consistency at each step in a project or programme design procedure. In broad terms these involve project level, programme and then national level analyses.

Analysis strategy

Step 1

Source: "Comparative production systems for SDGs - a practical approach to innovation", Series: A Boolean Society, The George Boole Foundation Ltd, HPC, London, 2019.
The procedural sequence of SDGToolkit analyses start with an assessment of the general impact of the "global constraints" or the constraint-linked indicators:
  • Population size, structure, number of dependents and growth rates (difference between birth and death rates)
  • Income levels and their distribution
  • Inflation at national level
The analytical tools generate future projections of the states of each of these factors providing a dynamic foundation to all other analyses addressing specific gaps. The output is in narrative, tabular and graphic form. This establishes the clear quantitative model of the national environment bounded by a nation-specific global constraints within which the project will have to operate. On the other hand these analyses also help assess the degree to which these constraints have contributed to the existing gaps and that will have to be taken into account and countered during the process of identification and development of change strategies.

These projections are analysed on the basis of a “case analysis” relating to a specific local target community in order to identify the gaps and needs and to add “local” constraints facing any solutions based on the OQSI due diligence design procedures. This project-specific assessment is indicated in the diagram on the right within the ellipse containing the number “1”. As stated, at this level a project will normally be oriented towards an identified and quantified target community which is far smaller than the national target community. Such communities are usually members of the lowest income segment of the national constituency. The design process of a project as a case analysis provides useful information on resources requirements, timing and funding or budgetary requirements.

Step 2.1

This analysis is then repeated by reviewing alternative scales of operation of solutions to cover increasing numbers of the target communities facing similar gaps across a nation. This provides a simulation of alternative sizes of programmes of multiple projects designed to address all of the national target group, as a basis for also quantifying the required resources such as funds and specialised personnel. This process contained in the ellipse in the diagram below indicated by the number “2”. The impact of a programme will be larger that that of the single case analysis project because it will involve the full national target population.

This stepwise approach is justified on the basis that the clustering of the target population can occur within very different natural environments across geographic space. For example the constraint facing urban poor can differ from those facing the rural poor.

Step 2.2

The information generated by analyses completed in steps 1 and 2 generates baseline options in terms of individual projects and national multi-project programmes.

To identify a national change strategy the design would then introduce the innovation options that different types of specialist practitioners can introduce based on experience and benchmarked SOAS processes in operation elsewhere. This separate analysis is applied to clarify the costs and benefits of introducing different types of innovation which should improve the performance of the projects and programmes previously identified and dimensioned. Depending upon the target group cluster the particular innovations applied can vary.

As a result design teams will have distinct comparative data on the relative quantitative physical, economic and sustainability impacts of the proposed change strategy options with and without these innovations.

Step 3

Once the preferable APS options have been identified it is necessary to review existing regulations and policies in terms of the possible degrees to which they constrain proposed implementations. Where necessary this analysis can identify what types of change in legislation, policy and regulations might ease the burden of bringing about the desired changes in wellbeing of the national target population. This final analysis provides the basis for quantifying the total resources and budgets required. These activities make up the actions in the ellipse indicated by the number “3”.

Towards viability and practical criteria

The impressive feature in this analytical sequence is its focus on practicality by pointing to viable alternatives. However, it achieves a little more by also establishing boundaries on what should be considered to be feasible so as to avoid unrealistic over-ambition (wasting resources) or under-ambition (wasting resources). In internal studies applying this system it is evident that sub-Saharan Africa faces a severe constraint linked to population growth rates. The population growth rates help project production or import requirements and use of land resources.

The analyses on real income levels and distribution, include projections of trends in real incomes and these are set against trends in unit prices of essential consumption items. This enables the projection of the status of purchasing power which in most lower income segments trends downwards pointing to a deepening crisis where increasing numbers cannot afford to consume essential goods and services. Set against this, another set of calculations compare existing production systems (rainfed, protected, irrigated, shifting clearances and use) and these can be compared with alternative production systems (APS) and systems based on technology transfer. In all cases the focus is on the feasibility of producers to secure compensatory income while selling at prices that enable accessibility to lower income segments. This is a unusual analysis for project cycle management systems but is establishes baselines to economic feasibility to avoid projects designs that will not resolve the needs of the target group. Most solutions aim at sustainable production systems but these lead nowhere if the system is not economically sustainable.

The inflation factor is used to simulate different inflation scenarios, an issue of interest to policy-makers and macroeconomists. The combination of all three groups of constraint-linked indicator analyses provides a very clear picture of national development prospects and is able to highlight priority issues.

Reporting and advocacy

There is no doubt that this sequence of analyses help design projects and programmes of significance but it is also clear that the three groups of constraint-linked indicators all are closely linked to fundamental national policy issues related to population and economic management. Projects and programmes can become more effective if levered by policy incentives and support and these analyses generate a lot of evidence-based information that provides for objective dialogues between policy-makers and stakeholder representatives.

The analytical tools generate narrative reports on each analysis, copious tabulations and graphic representation of the results of analyses. All of this data can be downloaded and used in reports. There is even an audio capability that provides an audio rendition of the narrative report that can, for example, be used in Power Point. As a result the output is well documented and provides a medium to support advocacy for the adoption of more efficient change strategies in support of Agenda 2030.

The sequence of analyses make use of specific analytical tools which will be described and reviewed in the next article in this series.