SDGs: Breathing new life into old indicators: Meeting report

On Thursday, May 6 2021, the RSS International Development Section hosted a meeting titled ' SDGs: Breathing new life into old indicators' with guest speaker Dr Steve MacFeely, head of statistics and information at UNCTAD.

Steve started by reminding us of the genesis of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they differ from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them. The MDGs were voluntary, applying to developing countries, with a political and moral imperative: the SDGs are formal, universal and ambitious – but lack priorities. But on the plus side they address causes and have an integrated coverage of the challenges facing the world.

The challenge that the SDGs pose statistics offices just in terms of scale is unprecedented. And disaggregation, unclear definitions, inconsistent use of terminology, and composite targets all add to the challenge. An indicator such as 15.1.1 – forest area as a proportion of total land area – might be better measured from satellite images for international comparability, but then where does national ownership come in? Target 3.3, on ending AIDS, TB and malaria shows up a tension between AIDS and TB, which are global in nature, and malaria which is regional. What is important for the world as a whole may not be important for an individual country. And there is no consensus on what defines progress towards the goals – the UNSC and the regional commissions have different methodologies.

Steve then turned to some of the unanticipated consequences of the SDGs. First, the indicators don’t simply measure the SDGs, they define them. This is because few of the indicators fit the specifications exactly: some are proxies, some only measure part of the target. Second, are countries prioritising data for the SDGs over other data? Are the SDGs leading to a change in the way official statistics are compiled? Could some statistics be privatised? Third, the current debate is all about the value of the indicators. Why is there no discussion around the implementation of the SDGs and related policy formulation? Steve argues that the traditional wider role of statistics has been narrowed.

In the final part of his talk, Steve asked us to consider four things. First, there is an opportunity to look again at National Statistical Systems (NSS) and their relationship with the national data infrastructure, with legal frameworks and with institutional cooperation. Second, there is an opportunity to reimagine the NSS as an organisation which accredits data from other sources. Third, we need to re-think who produces which data – global v. national – raising issues of data ownership and data sovereignty. And fourth, data is now a global public good – and he drew our attention to the 2021 World Development Report and its call for a new global consensus on data.

A lively discussion followed the talk.

Download the slides (PDF)
Watch a recording of the meeting

Phil Crook, Meetings Secretary, International Development Section

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