It’s the Indicators, Stupid: A Simplistic Overview of the Sustainable Development Goals

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By J.M.D. Simmons, C+S ’15

In the year 2000, the United Nations sought to accelerate this process and 8 goals and 21 sub-targets of the Millennium Development Goals were created to motivate and direct new development investments.

Simmons_SDGsOf course, there were some issues. People criticize that the process was hastily and exclusively prepared while not universally applied to both developing and developed countries. Some make comments about the omissions of human rights, of specific sustainable practices or of the entire concept of agriculture. Most damningly, there is no shortage of accusations of so-called “distorting effects,” whereby through the setting of an indicator as a policy goal, worthwhile ventures might be cast aside and scale might be substituted for quality.

And indeed, a more depressing reality can be hidden if one does not look past a single, victorious number. When confronted with the fact that lives have been improved for 200 million slum dwellers over the past 15 years as indicated by the progress of Target 7.D, often one does not stop to think of the 267 million slum dwellers added over the same time period.

For the post-2015 Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) tries to address these concerns. The developing process has been made more inclusive, with hundreds of international conferences in a terribly confusing bureaucratic exercise. However, countries continue to voice their frustrations that their opinions are not being heard. Additionally, as opposed to the Millennium Development Goals, all targets of the SDG are meant to be universal, with “common but differentiated responsibilities” for each of the member states, a relevant concept for environmental domains and particularly for that of climate change.

Finally, by more than doubling the number of goals and octupling the number of targets, there is suddenly space to give climate change, water management, hunger or city resiliency all the indicators they should need. Of course this method has attracted its own share of negative attention.

However, all of these complications, the greater inclusivity, the universality and the sheer number of targets have created chaos during the creation of the indicators and the metrics used to monitor progress. Concerns erupted from the country representatives about the indicators being too limited in scope, unable to be disaggregated or unfair toward developing countries. Now that the goals and targets are set, the Inter-Agency Expert Group — a collection of national statistical officers from 30 member states — has until December to submit an indicator framework.

The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) is currently leading this effort, attempting to come up with indicators which are methodologically sound, measurable and easy to communicate. Additionally, it would be great not make anyone too angry.

Despite all the frustration, possible unexpected consequences and the eventual complications with securing funding for all these targets, the goals have a great chance to highlight important issues in sustainable development that have gone neglected.

But there is another undeniably good consequence for this data-driven international policy: the expansion and improvement of recordkeeping across the world.

As an UNSD intern, I’ve listened to committees and statisticians from countries all around the world and learned how new the concept of environmental monitoring is to statistical offices and to the national priorities in some countries and how limited their current capacity is. I have witnessed how much time and energy goes into surveying, aggregating, disaggregating, harmonizing, cross-checking and other processing requirements to get you to a single number ready to be displayed on website banners and undergraduate economics papers. But that kind of knowledge and systematic infrastructure makes a true difference on a local and national scale and can allow individual governments to make smarter and more forward-thinking decisions about issues such as energy, agriculture and disaster risk management. With so many more indicators and targets dedicated to environmental issues in place, and the force of the international community to facilitate monitoring, I cannot help feeling optimistic for our ability to understand and safeguard the environment in which we live, and improve living conditions continuing into 2030.

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