July 4, 2014 | By Guido Schmidt-Traub
The millennium development goals (MDGs) have galvanised governments, civil society and business around ending extreme poverty in all its forms. Though extreme poverty remains widespread, the MDGs have made a huge contribution, particularly in public health, where dramatic progress has been made.
Governments are now debating a fresh set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) to continue the work of the MDGs. The new goals will be adopted at a summit in New York in September 2015. Theintergovernmental open working group on the SDGs is considering a list of 17 goals and 149 targets.
With 2030 as the target date, the SDGs will focus on ending extreme poverty worldwide. In addition, the new goals must also address the challenges of social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Since no country has yet achieved all three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental), the SDGs will be universal goals.
But the SDGs must also do much better than the MDGs. The latter failed to become real-time management tools for governments, civil society organisations and businesses. MDG data arrives with long delays (our most recent data on extreme income poverty dates from 2010) and with massive gaps. We also lack metrics for some important MDG priorities.
These shortcomings are no coincidence. When the MDGs were promulgated in 2001, data and metrics were a mere afterthought. It took several years to compile a list of MDG indicators. Too little time and effort were spent on filling indicator gaps and ensuring real-time monitoring.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the time to debate indicators, fill gaps and think through effective reporting is now – before the SDGs are adopted in 2015. Only by defining metrics and monitoring processes over the coming 18 months will the world be ready to implement the SDGs on 1 January 2016. Now is also the time to mobilise political and financial commitments to support better data for the SDGs.
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – launched in 2012 by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to accelerate problem-solving for sustainable development – has recently released a draft report on indicators for the SDGs. Our draft report underwent a public consultation involving about 20,000 people in more than 150 countries. It makes four points.
First, the indicators outlined map well to the 17 focus areas considered by the open working group on the SDGs, the goals proposed by the high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda and other reports. This shows we have a broad consensus on the contours of the SDGs and can develop the indicator framework now. Of course, the indicators will be need to be aligned with the SDGs that are adopted in September 2015.
Second, the number of SDG indicators must be limited. We identified about 900 that have been proposed, and struggled to get down to 100. Some national statistical offices feel even this number is too high. Since most targets have more than one indicator, we recommend 30 targets – in comparison, governments at the UN are considering 149 targets.
Third, countries need to report annually on the vast majority of SDG indicators. Annual reporting will be a huge challenge, but it can be met by mobilising modern technologies, by learning from best practice and by giving data and metrics the political attention they need.
Fourth, we know which indicator gaps need to be filled by the end of 2015. Examples include metrics for multidimensional poverty, nutrition, access to primary healthcare, reactive nitrogen flows and several governance indicators. These gaps can be filled if statistical agencies work creatively with experts from academia, civil society and business between now and September 2015.
The SDSN is working with the UN Statistics Division, UN agencies, national statistical offices and others to fill indicator gaps, understand how the international system can report annually on the SDGs and quantify the financial resources needed for a sound monitoring system. We hope to have better answers to these important questions by the end of this year, so that world leaders can take the necessary steps in 2015 to ensure the SDGs get off to a successful start.
Guido Schmidt-Traub is the Executive Director of SDSN. This op-ed originally appeared in The Guardian.