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By Tom Moultrie, University of Cape Town

Population-related elements are present in approximately 40% of the SDG indicators. Without appropriate, accurate, and timely data, framed by the principle of ‘no-one left behind’, our ability to monitor progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals will be constrained.

The challenges of collecting and employing such data will be borne, largely, by the countries of the global South. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by the UN in 2015, pose a significant and fundamental challenge to the global development community, and will shape the global development agenda over the period to 2030. The 17 goals, with their associated 169 targets and more than 230 unique indicators, are highly ambitious and meeting them will require a monumental sustained effort from nations, governments, civil society organizations, as well as the general populace.

Achieving the SDGs by 2030 will also require that progress towards meeting the goals be monitored and tracked on a regular and systematic basis, which in turn will present substantial data challenges that require the urgent attention of the global data community. While the SDGs cover all areas of development including mitigating climate change, and moving towards a more sustainable ecosystem, population-related data will play a hugely important role in assessing our progress towards meeting the SDGs: in the official list of indicators, 97 (some 40 per cent) have a population-related element in either numerator or denominator, or both. Without appropriate means of measuring these population-related elements of the indicators, our ability to accurately track progress will be severely constrained.The focus of this research brief is on these population-related indicators. Where might they be sourced from? What data challenges do they present?

Within this focus, our particular attention is on the countries of the global South. For the countries in the global North, the data required to monitor and track the SDGs are mostly readily accessible and the data challenges are not insurmountable. In these countries, many indicators will be able to be monitored in near-real time. In the global South, however, the issues are somewhat more intractable. Administrative databases, such as civil and vital registration systems or population, taxation, or schooling registers are frequently substantially incomplete and generally not fit for the purpose of tracking the SDGs. For many countries in the global South, the census is a national data collection exercise without equal in terms of scale and complexity. In the absence of substantially complete vital registration or administrative databases, the census provides the only indication of those most basic features of a country’s population. The headline population counts provide a snapshot of the size and distribution of a country’s population at the census date, even while the processing, cleaning and preparation of tabulations from the data collected in the census take several years after the data are collected.

The universal scope of the census, that is its attempt to enumerate all people in a defined area at a point in time, also means that the census is frequently the only potentially reliable source of information on minority populations, on those at risk of being left behind, as well as providing data on rare or hard to measure events, such as migration and mortality. For these countries, their population census is a vitally important source of data that will be called upon directly for monitoring progress towards meeting the SDGs, and which will form the basis for a number of other data collection exercises that will be required to produce the highly granular and spatially disaggregated data that will be required to ensure that no-one is left behind. This policy brief highlights some of the important implications of countries having to rely, directly or indirectly, on their census data in the SDG process, and draws attention to possible interventions and strategies that could be used to mitigate these implications.