Indicators of success: how best to measure Agenda 2030


Four months have now passed since Agenda 2030 – the new sustainable development goals for the next 15 years – was agreed at the UN in New York. Targets have been set under each of the 17 goals, but the crucial matter of designating indicators to measure progress remains in the balance.

An Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IAEG) made up of statisticians from member states and representatives from UN agencies has been tasked with elaborating a list of global indicators (one or two for each of the 169 targets). This work is yet to be finalized, with a significant portion of the indicators still under discussion. The upcoming UN Statistical Commission meeting in March will be a crucial milestone, although it is unlikely all the indicators will be agreed by then.

That some of the indicators remain undecided is not in itself a problem, but there is growing concern over those that have already been defined, as several of them may lead to skewed and/or inadequate tracking of progress. At an October meeting of the IAEG in Bangkok, the majority of indicators were announced as agreed or final, with very little transparency as to how these decisions had been taken. And in many cases, they seem quite arbitrary and uninformed.

The multidimensional character of some of the targets is lost in attempts to capture them in a single indicator. For example, we are left with an inequality goal which does not include a robust measure of income inequality, although good methodologies already exist. Target 10.4 is to ‘Adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality’. However, the indicator agreed focuses almost solely on wages. This completely fails to measure at least one crucial stated aspect of the target: how fiscal policies can play a key role in improving equality. For this reason, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) has consistently advocated for using an additional inequality indicator – the Palma ratio of the share of gross national income held by the top 10% versus that of the bottom 40%, measured pre-tax and post-social transfers – which would look at the full distributive impacts of fiscal policy.

Other indicators being proposed are manifestly inadequate. For example, the suggested indicator for target 17.13 – ‘Enhance global macroeconomic stability, including through policy coordination and policy coherence’ – is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is not relevant for any aspect of the target.

This reality is problematic because indicators are not only measures by which progress can be judged; they also focus attention on particular groups or issues and create incentives for policy action. If an indicator is reductive and of questionable relevance, then it implicitly allows governments to get away with doing little to achieve the (carefully negotiated and crucial) target, and this in turn undermines accountability.

These concerns and others were addressed at a civil society briefing and exchange with member states at the UN in New York on January 26. At that event, Kate Donald from CESR spoke about some of the deficiencies of the current proposals from a human rights perspective, building on our report The Measure of Progress and our experience in human rights monitoring.

Admittedly, the global indicator framework was never likely to be perfect or perfectly comprehensive, and there is a limit to how relevant a global indicator can be to every country. Some indicators will inevitably be of less relevance to certain countries, while the specific issues they face under particular targets may not be well covered. While all countries face important challenges on issues like water quality, access to free quality education, access to justice and poverty, the nature and scale of these challenges is undoubtedly different and will require different policies and actions.

With the deficiencies of the global indicators becoming increasingly apparent, the national level will be a crucial space for identifying and applying indicators. To this end, CESR has been working with national groups on how to develop national indicators to measure progress towards the SDGs and international human rights obligations.

Kate recently participated in an expert working group bringing together access to justice practitioners in the United States to propose national indicators for SDG target 16.3; ‘…ensure equal access to justice for all’.  The suggested global indicators focus on the crime reporting rate and the proportion of those who have faced a dispute and accessed some kind of resolution mechanism. These issues have some relevance in the US, but do not address the more crucial and policy-sensitive problems of access to legal aid or the right to counsel without charge for tenants facing eviction. Kate shared insights on the SDG indicator process and on how indicators can best take into account human rights principles and standards.

In December, CESR’s Allison Corkery participated in a workshop in Nairobi on the monitoring of access to information as it pertains to the rights to water and sanitation – an issue of critical relevance to the implementation of SDG 6 (Ensure water and sanitation for all). Co-convened by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and Article 19, it focused on the Free Flow Principles, which are a wide-ranging set of guidelines developed by Article 19 to promote access to information, transparency, accountability, good governance and civic engagement in the water and sanitation sectors. Allison highlighted the value of using indicators and benchmarks in such monitoring. She also facilitated a brainstorming exercise to identify the principles most relevant to the Kenyan context—an exercise that highlighted the complexity of accommodating the interests and priorities of diverse stakeholders, which is a crucial first step in identifying appropriate indicators.

As the SDG experience is showing, the selection of indicators (especially when on a tight timeline and at a global scale) is fraught with perils and pitfalls. Nevertheless, well-chosen indicators that are fleshed out with reliable data are a crucial building block of accountability and can provide an important tool and evidence base for both human rights claims and policy reforms. To be successful, indicators (whether they be global or national) require broad support and buy-in. To secure that, it is vital that the process of agreeing them is open, transparent, and participatory, so that the indicators reflect rights-holders’ concerns and perspectives, whilst also focusing policy efforts effectively.