Monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals

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MonitoringSDGsLarry MacFaul & Joy Hyvarinen, VERTIC

Success in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals will rest, in part, on how well efforts can be guided and where resources are directed. If the international community can agree on a reliable indicator framework and commit to on-going monitoring, progress towards the goals can be tracked, and implementation actions can be evaluated and refined. The recent session of the negotiations on the UN post-2015 agenda focused on how these important systems – including ‘follow-up and review’, and ‘indicators’ – might be established.

A large undertaking
The main challenge in developing a monitoring framework for the Sustainable Development Goals is their expansive scope. The goals cover a vast range of issues spanning human activity on earth: water use, energy, food and agriculture, health, sustainable consumption and production, industrialization, urbanisation, education, inequality, poverty, and gender issues. This scope will require collection of large amounts of different types of data involving a host of metrics from across several disciplines such as economics, social sciences, natural sciences, medicine and environmental science.

The development and testing of indicator sets can require a considerable amount of time and technical work. Research carried out by VERTIC and Chatham House to develop and run indicators to monitor global progress to establish good governance in just one sector – timber production and trade – showed this. But this example also raises an important counterpoint; for many areas that the goals covers, relevant indicators and data may already exist. The question is how much coverage do they already provide (both in terms of issues and geographically), how reliable are they, and are they considered to be fair metrics.

The task of developing a coherent and practical indicator framework is further magnified by the need to measure progress at the national, regional and global levels, which implies designing a workable integration system for the various data sets. Coupled to this is the need for standardization and verification of data.

There are also lessons to be learnt from experience with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A recent report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS ) for example says that ‘[w]hat is loosely referred to as the Millennium Development Goals monitoring and evaluation framework consists of a variety of monitoring components which have evolved over time, without a provision for rigorous evaluation’.

When should we start?
The OIOS report recommends that a clear, overarching framework of monitoring and evaluation objectives, role/responsibility definitions and coordination mechanisms should be established from the outset.

Hitting a moving target
But there is still uncertainty about the final version of the Sustainable Development Goals and the targets that will be attached to each goal. These are to be adopted at the UN Summit in September 2015. While there seems to be little appetite to re-open negotiations on the proposal for Sustainable Development Goals and targets developed by the UN open working group, the work is not finished. Some of the targets contain an ‘x’ where there should be a percentage, or other wording, and some targets are not in line with other international commitments.

But when developing monitoring frameworks, three chief questions tend to emerge time and again: ‘what’ (is to be monitored), ‘who’ (will carry it out), and ‘how’ (will it be done). Lack of clarity on the first of these questions can be a significant stumbling block. That said, although the final form of the Sustainable Development Goals is uncertain, in the meanwhile work on the indicators is proceeding.
Moving ahead with indicator development
The UN Statistical Commission, which is leading the work on indicators, has endorsed a ‘road map’ for developing an indicator framework by 2016. The Statistical Commission released a draft technical report on indicators in March. It contained an initial assessment of more than 300 potential indicators for global monitoring. A new Interagency and Expert Group  on Sustainable Development Goals Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) will take the work forward. Its first document on potential indicators is expected in July 2015.

The Statistical Commission has emphasized that developing a robust and high-quality indicator framework takes time and needs to be done in stages. At the same time there is pressure to have an indicator framework in place soon, to be able to start measuring progress. The Statistical Commission is expected to endorse the new indicator framework and consider an implementation plan in early 2016.

But can everyone keep up?
Those designing the indicator framework have another factor to take into account; the significant implementation challenge for developing countries to contribute to the on-going monitoring endeavour. This challenge raises a number of questions. How much capacity is available in developing countries for this activity? How much capacity building can be activated? And how can the indicator framework be shaped to reflect the answers, or estimated answers, to these questions?

Limiting the number of indicators is one of the options, especially as there are already 169 targets under the Sustainable Development Goals - each of which will need an indicator or indicators. The Statistical Commission has pointed out that a large number of indicators would be an enormous challenge for national statistical systems. Cross-cutting indicators for some targets could help.

Making sure that capacity building and training is available should be a priority. As the OIOS report puts it, a ‘strategy to support national statistical, monitoring and evaluation capacity development needs to be in place’. If monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals is going to work, countries – in particular donor countries – will need to invest in this, starting as soon as possible. Such efforts will be worthwhile since establishing robust monitoring capabilities in countries will enable more accurate planning of national sustainable development priorities, as well as activities helping to keep track at the international level.

Larry MacFaul is Acting Programme Director of the Verification and Monitoring Programme at VERTIC

Joy Hyvarinen is Adviser to VERTIC

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