Sign up for monthly updates from the SDSN.
First name is required.
Last name is required.
Questions or Comments?

We welcome your questions or comments on our work. Please get in touch with us by writing to

December 4, 2014 | By Yojana Sharma

The indicators to measure the success of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were an afterthought devised by UN officials “in a dark room in New York and thrust down countries’ throats” and, as such, were a lost opportunity, says Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

To ensure the same does not happen with their replacements, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will run from 2015 to 2030, the SDSN has been working to collate the various specific indicators that could be included. For nations to track progress on the 17 SDGs currently proposed a significant expansion of the public sector would be required, but tracking may also mean making better use of private-sector firms’ own data, he says.

But indicators are not an exact science, and some developing countries may struggle to gather the massive amount of new data needed. Here, Schmidt-Traub talks about this challenge and the “data revolution” that could help to monitor the SDGs.

What did the MDG indicators teach us about how to monitor the SDGs?

The SDSN started working on indicators almost a year ago. We realised that to better understand the operational implications and feasibility of the Sustainable Development Goals and targets we needed to have a sense of what indicators out there could be used. The other motivation was that, with the MDGs, data really was not, in my view, a great success. It was an afterthought. The MDGs and targets were adopted and then, at some point, a group of UN officials met in a dark room and ticked off the list of available indicators, which somehow mapped to the MDGs. The result was that some MDG indicators don’t make much sense, and there are huge gaps. It was a bit of a lost opportunity. There was never any discussion or serious thinking about what we needed to measure. The other problem, which we highlighted in a 2013 report we did on MDG indicators, is that the data is extremely patchy and comes with tremendous time lags. Poverty data is often years out of date when it comes out so it cannot be used in annual monitoring. It could not be used as a management tool for the MDGs and, by extension, the SDGs.

There will be many more indicators with the SDGs than there were with the MDGs, but how many are feasible? For the SDGs, everyone was proposing goals and targets. UN-Water came up with around 42 indicators for the water and sanitation goals alone. There were something like 900 indicators, which, frankly, is not helpful. There was an urgent need for prioritisation. So SDSN started this work on indicators and we were the only ones to look at the whole range of indicators very, very early on. We said we need to cap the number of indicators at 100. Many national statistics offices said even that number would push them beyond their comfort zone. They preferred significantly fewer. Then, everyone else who commented on the draft version of our report [Indicators for sustainable development, released for public consultation in February 2014] said: ‘It’s great, but please add the following five indicators’. If it could be fewer, I’d love it, and anything more I struggle to see how it could be implemented, which is an indication of the feasibility of the 169 targets proposed by the UN’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG). There really has to be some consolidation.


Read the full interview at SciDev.Net