“Nothing exists until it is measured.” (Niels Bohr)
Evidence-based policymaking must be rooted in sound data to inform policy priorities, budget allocations, and tracking of progress. This is especially true in the case of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they provide the policy framework that all 193 UN member states have pledged to achieve by 2030. Good data and clear metrics are critical for each country to take stock of where it stands, devise pathways for achieving the goals, and track progress.
Current assessments of performance on the SDGs worldwide, however, tend to reach different findings and policy conclusions on where the priorities for further action lie, which can be confusing for researchers and policymakers. In order to demystify the drivers of such differences and make them transparent, here we compare and contrast the results obtained by four SDG monitoring approaches.
Assessing progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) and the associated SDGs is a complex, multi-faceted process involving actors at the subnational, national, regional and global levels. The activities related to compiling and disseminating the SDG indicators are commonly referred to as “measurement and monitoring” and are largely the domain of official statisticians and other data providers.
All countries face challenges in measurement and monitoring, whether in terms of finding suitable methodologies, the quality of underlying data, the management and sharing of information or the ability to report indicators with the desired degree of disaggregation.
The focus of this section is on the challenges faced by countries in the UNECE region and on the responses taken by UNECE and other organizations at the national, regional and global levels to these challenges. More specifically, challenges and responses were reviewed in relation to:
Defining the roles of National Statistical Offices (NSOs) in SDG measurement and monitoring and supporting NSOs in executing those roles
Coordinating the activities of data producers and users involved in measurement and monitoring and
ensuring collaboration among them
Modernizing statistical processes and systems to better support measurement and monitoring
Strengthening basic statistics and accounts for use in compiling SDG indicators
Dissemination and communication of SDG statistics and indicators
Securing adequate human and financial resources.
KikaoCultures.com draws mainly upon on-line materials available from the United Nations and other global institutions and from UNECE and other regional institutions. To supplement this – and to gain direct insight into the challenges that member States face – an electronic questionnaire was used to gather information from member States regarding their challenges and the responses they have made to them. Of 56 UNECE member States, 51 replied to the questionnaire.The most common challenges reported by these 51 countries were:
Difficulties coordinating and collaborating among stakeholders
Inadequacy of human and financial resources
Gaps in required data
Difficulties in disaggregating statistics to reveal trends in specific sub-populations (for example, the poor, urban versus rural populations and persons with disabilities).
The first finding from the general review of challenges and responses is simply how impressive are the breadth, depth and quality of the actions that global, regional and national organizations have taken to support measurement and monitoring. Unlike in the case of the Millennium Development Goals, when measurement and monitoring were an afterthought and progress reporting was not as robust as it should have been, the national, regional and global statistical communities have all risen admirably to the challenge of measurement and monitoring the SDGs. This bodes well not just for the realization of the 2030 Agenda’s ambitions, but also for the future of cooperation and mutual support between the policy agencies of governments and their statistical counterparts.
FURTHER DEVELOP MEASUREMENTS OF PROGRESS
NSOs and other members of national statistical systems (NSSs) in the UNECE region are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the impressive range of supports for SDG measurement and monitoring available to them from UNECE and other regional and global organizations. This section covers the most important of these, but it should only be a starting point. Far more initiatives, programs and policies exist than could be covered here. Thus, NSOs and other members of NSSs are encouraged to explore on their own the supports that are available from regional and global organizations. At the same time, UNECE should encourage other regional and global organizations with initiatives, programs or policies in place that, whether explicitly or indirectly, support SDG measurement and monitoring in the region to ensure their efforts are well-known among member States and the members of their NSSs.
When it comes to defining and supporting the role of NSOs, the global community is clear that NSOs must be at the centre of SDG measurement and monitoring. This is acknowledged in the text of the 2030 Agenda itself. While such strong support for the role of NSOs is appropriate and welcome, it must also be tempered with a dose of realism regarding what NSOs can and cannot achieve. NSOs are struggling in many ways (some predictable and others less so) to fulfil the role they have been given. UNECE should deepen its engagement with NSOs to understand more fully the challenges they face in fulfilling their central roles in SDG measurement and monitoring, while also acknowledging that municipalities, academia and many others play active roles in supporting NSOs in measurement and monitoring.
Particular attention should be paid to their challenges in coordinating and collaborating with data users and other stakeholders involved as it is likely that challenges in this regard are preventing NSOs from fully meeting expectations. Though modernization of statistical process was noted as a challenge for SDG measurement and monitoring by about half of member States, it did not rank among the challenges that countries were most concerned about. It is unclear whether this is because countries mostly know how to overcome the modernization challenges they face or because they do not see modernization as a top priority in terms of SDG measurement and monitoring. Certainly, regional
and global organizations have clearly spelled out the benefits – indeed, the imperative – of modernization in the context of measurement and monitoring. Yet when asked in the survey to provide examples of specific modernization initiatives taken, relatively few initiatives were reported.
In particular, no significant mention was made of using a non-traditional source of data to meet the challenge of SDG measurement and monitoring.
UNECE should work with other regional and global organizations to assist NSOs in moving beyond the promise of modernization – in particular, the promise of using complementary data sources (for example, big data) and interoperability with other administrative information systems (for example, open data, e-government and geospatial, health and environmental data) – to the realization of its benefits. Countries with well-funded, large statistical systems are likely to be ahead of those with smaller, more resource-constrained systems. UNECE should engage with member States that have achieved positive outcomes through modernization to transfer the lessons learned to those with less capacity to modernize all on their own. These efforts to support modernization should extend to sectoral, subnational and local members of NSSs to assist them in fulfilling their roles (for example, production of regionally disaggregated data) in measuring and monitoring the SDGs.
In the case of strengthening basic statistics and accounts, UNECE and other regional and global communities have a great deal to offer, particularly in the areas of environmental statistics that is relatively under-developed and key to SDG measurement and monitoring. Yet, despite the cross-cutting nature of the 2030 Agenda itself, much of the work done in the statistical domain within regional and global organizations remains siloed within traditional organizational structures. This is, arguably, not the best example to set for countries faced with the challenge of integrated measurement and monitoring. Regional and global organizations should, therefore, demonstrate leadership in the domain of SDG measurement and monitoring by working across traditional structures to support member States.
UNECE could, for example, undertake actions to promote, and support countries in implementing, recommendations in the UNECE Road Map on Statistics for Sustainable Development Goals and related outcomes of the work of the Interagency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators on data disaggregation for the SDG
indicators. Such work would demonstrate to member States the value of coordination and collaboration in addressing the complexities of measurement and monitoring.
Regarding dissemination and communication, there is a need to improve the collaboration between data producers and data users, to improve the usability of data in policy processes and the dissemination of data to the public. There is also a compelling case for a high degree of standardization across member States, regional and global organizations when speaking about data transmission. It would serve no one well if 56 different national reporting solutions were created to support SDG measurement and monitoring when a single standard, suitably adapted to meet country-specific needs where required, could suffice.
UNECE should promote the development and implementation of SDG dissemination and communication platforms and the use of standardized solutions for data and metadata transfer and exchange, following internationally agreed standards (for example, the existing Statistical Data and Metadata eXchange (SDMX) standard). This work could also build upon the initiatives already taken by the United States of
America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in this regard.
Finally, human and financial resources are, as seems always to be the case, a concern for many countries. Despite the Dubai Declaration’s clear call to mobilize funding for SDG measurement and monitoring, no global funding mechanism
is yet in place. Regrettably, the pandemic of 2020 may well make it more difficult for the foreseeable future to create such a mechanism. Nonetheless, countries should, to the fullest extent possible, act upon the Dubai Declaration’s call for increased funding for measurement and monitoring. In addition, low-cost means should be found to improve the skills and knowledge of member State experts required for measurement and monitoring.
In cooperation with other regional and global institutions, UNECE should maximize use of on-line learning, as this is adaptable, does not require travel and, if done well, highly effective. More traditional forms of capacity building – workshops, expert group meetings and conferences – should also be pursued. UNECE is well regarded for its capacity to organize and deliver these kinds of events and this capacity should be leveraged and strengthened to the extent possible. At the same time, UNECE should actively explore new ways to deliver this capacity building that are more flexible and fully exploit the potential of modern electronic communications.
For indicators where no data are available, other data or information were used to summarize the state of progress for that indicator. The SDGs indicators have been classified into three Tiers by the UN Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG indicators in order to summarize globally the level of data availability and methodological development.