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The utility of SDG indicators

Economics Unit, APEurope


There has been a slow implementation of indicator specifications in support of SDGs. In addition to specifications there is a need for well-defined means of collection and analytical methods. The Global Monitoring Network is working on this issue but time is passing and many lower income countries lack the necessary data and practical guidance.

Salient points

In a section concerning the global monitoring network (GMN) that will be used to compared indicator status across nations it is apparent that Agenda 2030, and the stats authorities in particular, did not prepare in time for the challenge. In terms of preparedness the GMN, has grouped indicators into three Tiers 1, 2 and 3.

  • Tier 1 indicators are well defined and in general use
  • Tier 2 indicators are well defined but not regularly collected
  • Tier 3 indicators are still being defined (as well as methods and basis for collection)

GMN are working on this but this is going to take some time while teams responsible for designing actions lack specific indicator inputs.

The summary status graph of the relative sizes of Tiers with respect to each SDG are shown below:
The stats from the report, see above, indicate that the SDGs that have less than 20%-23% of their indicators within Tier 1 include:
  • SDG 1: Poverty
  • SDG 5: Gender Inequality
  • SDG 10: Reduced inequalities
  • SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
  • SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production
  • SDG 13: Climate action
  • SDG 14: Life below water
and the SDG that still have less than 12%=13% of their indicators in Tier 1 include:
  • SDG 5: Gender inequality
  • SDG 13: Climate action
The following SDGs have large Tier 3 categories indicating that indicators are still being defined (as well as methods and basis for collection):
  • The following SDGs still await the definition of over 20% of their indicators:
  • SDG 1: Poverty
  • SDG 4: Education
  • SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities
  • SDG 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  • SDG 14: Life below water is awaiting the definition of 40% of the relevant indicators
  • Extraordinarily SDG 12: Responsible production and consumption is missing 70% of the indicators
Lastly the most shocking of all is that climate change the central issue to sustainability which is assigned to SDG 13 as ""Climate action" is missing some 65% of the definitions and methods and bases for calculation.

This is not news

We refer to an article in this medium entitled: Why Agenda 2030's Sustainable Development Goals are not being met in which Hector McNeill, Director of the George Boole Foundation, referred to observations made by Dr. Moatti, a member of the review Expert Group of Scientists and Director of IRD, who referred specifically to the lack of progress in the same SDGs as the main Report has indicated lack complete indicator data access and datasets.

It is therefore notable that the Report did not make the direct association between lack of guiding indicators and lack of practical progress in these SDGs, especially in low income countries.

Efforts to overcome data constraints

According to Hector McNeill,

"This gap in indicators has been evident for some time. However, the state of affairs is worse than reported because the graph shown in the report combines indicator status from high, middle and low income countries. The situation of low income countries as a group is far worse. This is why after 2015 the OQSI reported that many teams working on project and programme design in low income countries faced difficulties in adjusting the conventional project cycle guidelines, adopted by most donors, to designing projects to address SDGs. The guidelines in question tended to concentrate on specific target groups, often without determining the size of the national target group. But under Agenda 2030 this is an essential step needed to establish the scale of the national problem expressed in terms of gaps and needs of all members of a specific population segment. The next step should then be to use this information to calculate what is needed to deliver national solutions in terms of resources and funds. Many government authorities in low income countries, no matter how well-intentioned, are facing difficulties in advancing their country's interests as a result of lack of indicator datasets and inappropriate design methods."

The work of OQSI

In 2010, the OQSI (Open Quality Standards Initiative) was established in 2010 to look into the problem of establishing a more practical approach to project design. This was initiated because of a 35% failure rate of international economic development projects. However, during the course of this work, Agenda 2030 was launched and the difficulties this introduced for lower income countries were picked up quite early by OQSI. OQSI recommendations in 2016 and 2017 led to the creation of a due diligence design procedure (3DP) which creates a horizontal framework of analytical steps similar to normal project cycle management systems. The 3DP is slightly more detailed and is designed to ensure that all critical factors are taken into consideration and given due consideration. However, poor project performance as well as outright failures are almost always associated with poor quality information being used in the design process. This can be caused by project teams lacking specific types of expertise, a lack of knowledge of specific types of analysis or even lack of source data. Therefore to ensure that each analytical step is completed to an adequate standard the 3DP horizontal framework was complemented by a library of analytical tools that are designed to complete calculations and simulations of the vertical specialised analyses according to the type of project and its domain (agriculture, health, energy etc).

The development of SDGToolkit

According to McNeill,

"This is what gave rise to the SDGToolkit as a library of analytical tools to complete the necessary analyses at each step in the design process without having to reply on indicators whose national values, in many cases, are either not known or only on an approximate basis. We have been aware of the gaps in reliable indicators in the fields of sustainable food production (SDG1- hunger), inequalities (SDG5-gender, SDG10-economics) and sustainable production and consumption (SDG12-sustainable consumption and production) have been lacking. Therefore to assist project and programme designers we apply constraint-linked indicators as opposed to symptomatic indicators to the analysis of national circumstances. Therefore the first steps in any SDGTool sequence of analysis is an evaluation of the global or national constraints of:
  • population dynamics (numbers, structure,number of dependents,birth and death rates)
  • levels and distribution of real incomes (nominal incomes and distribution adjusted for population growth rates and inflation)
  • inflation (annual rises in the nominal prices of critical food, water and energy resources and services necessary for survival)
These help define a general feasibility envelope within which solutions initiate implementation. These analyses inform us of the quantitative sensitivity of per capita income and purchasing power across all income segments to the growth in population numbers and inflation. Rates of progress need to overcome these constraints in order to secure ecosystems carrying capacity equilibrium and forms of sustainability that address climate change.

These results provide an initial baseline upon which to measure the significance of these constraints facing a nation and measure the potential impacts on the SDGs. An additional detail is that these analyses enable an assessment of the economic feasibility of producing the goods and services needed in the light of the purchasing power of the target populations. They also help establish operational ranges within which production of needed goods and services can remain economically and environmentally sustainable. This provides important indicators for the design of economic policy design as well as macroeconomic policy targets and population policies."

The benefit of SDGToolkit is it's practical nature in helping teams carry out the correct analyses and calculations that are standardised and therefore provide the basis for assessing the comparative performance between projects and programmes in different domains.

An additional benefit of the SDGToolkit approach is the generation of a considerable amount of reliable data for policy makers to identify laws, regulations and initiative that can provide incentives that support those implementing projects to achieve their objectives as a means of satisfying national interests.