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Agenda 2030: defining the measure of progress

The approval of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations in September was a pivotal moment for both the human rights and development communities. But while the goals and targets set out in Agenda 2030 have the potential to create a better world for all, their actual impact will depend to a significant extent on decisions yet to be taken.


The UN has been unequivocal in its determination to achieve
the SDGs, but much depends of decisions yet to be taken

With the SDGs agreed, the international community is now getting to grips with the design of a list of indicators that will be used to monitor progress towards the goals. If the framework is to deliver the kind of transformation it promises, all states will need to be held accountable, and this will require clear, salient and regularly updated information on what progress has – or hasn’t – been made. Proposals for achieving this are set out in a new CESR briefing, The Measure of Progress, which explores how human rights can and must inform the selection of SDG indicators.

The new briefing sets out the criteria that should guide the selection of indicators, and proposes a number of approaches, methodologies and indicator sets that can help to ensure the SDG indicators framework is properly anchored in human rights. It highlights the need to incentivize policy action by effectively measuring policy efforts as well as outcomes, along with the necessity of providing indicators that tackle resource efforts from a human rights perspective. It also tackles the various dimensions of inequality that must be addressed in the indicator framework, and the importance of including provisions to measure compliance with extraterritorial human rights obligations.

These crucial issues are likewise addressed in a submission CESR made to the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) – the UN body tasked with delivering a proposal for a global indicator framework in March next year. Many of the indicators currently being considered by the IAEG-SDGs are problematic from a human rights perspective, and it is critical that this be remedied in the final proposal next year.

CESR’s efforts to ensure the SDG indicators are anchored in human rights build upon our long-running work to place human rights at the very heart of the post-2015 agenda. Agenda 2030, despite its deficiencies, is much more closely aligned with human rights principles than the Millennium Development Goals were. Assessed against the Human Rights Litmus Test drawn up by the Human Rights Post-2015 Caucus which CESR co-convenes, there is much to welcome. In its breadth, universality, and commitment to “leave no one behind”, the new framework has tremendous potential to act as a vehicle for the realization of people’s rights all across the globe.

However, continued reticence on the issue of accountability represents a real threat to this potential. As CESR has long argued, underpinning the new agenda with a web of effective accountability mechanisms will be necessary to ensure the new commitments are credible and honored in practice. Current arrangements for follow up and review are weak, with worryingly little attention to the accountability of corporate actors, powerful states and institutions of global economic governance. Indeed the new agenda offers little to confront the structural inequities of the dominant neoliberal economic system.

The outcomes of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa were a disappointment to most in civil society, thanks to the lack of strong time-bound commitments from high-income countries. Nevertheless, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda included a call for “countries to assess the impact of their policies on sustainable development,” echoing CESR’s push for states to carry out impact assessments of the spillover effects of their tax policy, in line with their extraterritorial human rights obligations.

With these concerns in mind, CESR will continue to work in close collaboration with a diverse range of partners – from grassroots groups to global coalitions and UN agencies – to ensure Agenda 2030 delivers on its stated goal of “transforming our world” and “realizing the human rights of all”.

  • To learn more about our work on the Sustainable Development Goals, see here.