SDGs: Only what is measured is tackled

Article as analysis
The adoption of the UN Agenda 2030 was a historic moment. In Spring the UN Statistical Commission will decide how progress in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals will be measured.

With the Agenda 2030, Heads of State and Government last year in New York committed to an ambitious vision of the world in the year 2030. Its centrepiece comprises the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 sub-goals.

Just months later, disenchantment was growing in civil society. For the Agenda 2030 only lays out the goals, while the choice of indicators and of ways of measuring progress was left to a group of experts. And the latter are already threatening to water down the very ambitious goals.

While some sub-goals already contain specific targets, for others the choice of the appropriate indicators is still in dispute. The upshot is that some substantial achievements of Agenda 2030, above all the new partnership between the global North and South, are already being weakened again.

Hence, the indicators focus too strongly on results in the global South. The support promised by the global North in Agenda 2030 will go largely unmeasured. It is also surprising that widely used income distribution indicators such as the Gini coefficient or the Palma ratio are missing. The latter ratio describes the relationship between the richest 10% and the poorest 40% of a population. There is no plan whatsoever to measure inequality between countries, although SDG 10 expressly aims to reduce inequality both in and between countries.

Most controversial were the indicators for SDG 17, which deals with resources for implementation. Among other things, this is about mobilizing additional funding sources. Thus, a proposed but still controversial indicator would measure the level of foreign direct investment (FDI). But not all FDI contribute to a country's sustainable development. Besides, the proposed indicator ignores financial outflows from developing countries. These must also be considered if it is hoped to record real net financial flows and volumes.

Agenda 2030 also aims to strengthen partnerships both between public and private players as well as with civil society. But the indicator proposed for this purpose only measures funds pledged for public-private partnerships. This means that there is no measurement of whether the funds have a positive effect or whether they are in fact being spent. Partnerships with civil society are not being recorded and measured at all.

The formulation of Agenda 2030 and the SDG entailed intensive consultations. For three years, civil society was able to participate actively by making comments and putting forward proposals. However, the working out of the indicators for the regular monitoring of the SDGs still lags far behind this elaborate process. Here too, the opportunity was indeed given to submit online comments and proposals. In the present document, however,  these have been largely overlooked.

The proposal by the expert group is not keeping pace with the high ambitions of Agenda 2030. This is all the more alarming, considering that the Millennium Development Goals have shown that what is not measured is not tackled at all.