Countries move ahead on SDGs without UN framework in place

A man explains the Sustainable Development Goals to an audience. Photo by: Xizi Luo / CC BY-NC-ND

The United Nations is inching closer toward establishing a global framework to measure the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, more than one year after the universal poverty, health, inequality and climate change agenda was approved.

But lack of available data and clarity on how these ambitious targets can actually be measured will likely leave the new U.N. monitoring system in flux for the next several years. That uncertainty could make it challenging to track progress on benchmark goals such as universal health coverage and whether violence against children has decreased leading up to 2030.

“It will be a process of refining the message and refining the indicators,” said Tom Slaymaker, senior statistics and monitoring specialist at UNICEF. “This is a long-term project and we have to be realistic about what we can expect to be able to report in the short- and medium-term.”

U.N. officials admit it could take years to finalize this global framework, so they are urging countries not to wait.  

Some countries, such as Mexico and Colombia, are already adopting this framework — a 30-page document with 230 indicators, tiered from I to III based off of their readiness to measure progress — into their national implementation strategy. Other countries are moving ahead on custom tailoring the Global Goals, as they are known, without universal benchmarks officially in place.

“I think it could be years past until there is a kind of global reporting system that covers all [countries],” said Grete Faremo, the executive director of the United Nations Office for Project Services. “If you think of it as a universal system that would encompass everything I think it will take time as I say if you look at it bottom up a lot of countries are all already showing their cards and asking for help and ready to support each other.”

Next steps

A U.N. meeting next week in Geneva will focus attention on finalizing the framework and the potential refinement of 10 indicators that have been singled out either because of their lack of alignment with a SDG target or methodological soundness. It’s the fourth of four SDG framework meetings led by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators, or IAEG, made up of representatives from 28 countries’ statistics offices.

The U.N. Statistical Commission has been tasked with interpreting the unfolding recommendations of the IAEG, which formed in March 2015, and translating them into written indicators. The General Assembly is then expected to consider and vote on the framework in March 2017.

Next week’s conference, running on Nov. 15-18, will give civil society a chance to voice concern about how their voices are being incorporated into the document.

John Romano, coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability and Participation network, a coalition of NGOs working for an open 2030 development agenda governance process, is one of the 50 civil society, academic and private sector representatives set to attend.

“They [the IAEG] haven't been as transparent as they could, and that is a criticism not just from civil society, but from U.N. agencies as well,” Romano said.

“I would be really surprised to see any of civil society organizations’ inputs reflected in what they currently have in the tiering system. Civil society is consulted, in theory, but when the inputs are not being reflected in the outcomes, what does that say?”

A request for comment to the IAEG’s Philippines representative was not answered by time of publication.

A challenging task

There is now more available data to assess development targets, as compared to when the predecessor Millennium Development Goals were monitored, says Claes Johansson, the chief of data dissemination and global administrator of DevInfo at UNICEF. But the SDGs also comprise a “much more ambitious agenda, increasingly, the proportion of these having to do with behaviors, attitudes and norms.”

This means, in practice, that in some cases, there is no internationally recognized standard for physical punishment against children — making it difficult to accurately measure indicators such as the “proportion of children aged 1-17 who experienced any physical punishment and/or psychological aggression by caregivers in the past month,” as UNICEF has commented.

“One of the challenges with this is that people could be using slightly different definitions of what they mean by physical punishment. We need to have a clear definition and try to standardize that so it can be compared in a meaningful way,” explained Slaymaker.

Other examples such as this flow throughout the long, technical roster of indicators.

At present, two-thirds of the 230 indicators are considered “very solid,” according to Francesca Perucci, chief of the statistics division for the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Other indicators up for revision at next week’s meeting are still difficult to effectively measure, U.N. agencies, international nonprofits and country statistics offices commented during a period of open consultations during September.

One SDG target of ensuring “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” is presently matched with the indicator 5.6.2., which calls for a “number of countries with laws and regulations that guarantee women aged 15-49 years access to sexual and reproductive health care, information and education.”

As the statistics office of Norway commented, this indicator, as it now stands, does not actually measure the extent of implementation. Possible refinements include broadening or eliminating any age bracket, or changing “women,” to “men,” or “all individuals,” as Oxfam International and the United States office of the chief statistician recommended.

Countries move ahead

Some countries are moving ahead independently, and “not waiting for this universal system,” to officially take form Faremo said. Twenty-two countries already reported on Global Goals progress to the General Assembly this July, despite not having all the universal indicators nailed down.  

Global Goals priorities vary by individual country, as does capacity to collect data, rebudget and prioritize. Not all indicators are relevant to all countries, but that is “absolutely normal, and has to be expected,” Perucci said.

Some countries are also further along in developing their national frameworks than others, said Lauren Barredo, a manager of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a global initiative directed by the Jeffrey Sachs, a special adviser on SDGs to the U.N. secretary-general. The nonprofit organization, with regional and national networks worldwide, focuses on Global Goals monitoring, evaluation and the political process of implementation.

Lack of data has hindered the implementation work of several Caribbean nations, she said. Data collection work also remains at the planning stages in places such as Nigeria, which has targeted employment, maternal and child health, agriculture, and gender equality as priority areas, according to Ope Adebisi, the SDSN’s focal point for the country.

Meanwhile, several countries, including Mexico, the Philippines — co-chairs of the IAEG — and Uganda, are already using the SDG’s 230 indicators to help implement the Global Goals, Perucci says.

“Many countries are actually trying to use the global list and find it very comprehensive,” Perucci said. “It has been decided by the countries themselves … at all different regions, so it sort of brings together a lot of their own ideas.”


Barredo said she still sees a lack of awareness among some countries about how the Global Goals should be interpreted and used. The SDSN co-published SDG Index and Dashboard this summer to help track progress.

“Despite the fact that the SDGs are the most transparent and inclusive agenda the U.N. has yet to deliver, we have heard some grumbling from civil society organizations that say, ‘Who wrote this, who is this for, I don’t hear my voice in this,” Barredo explained.

“But when you sit down and say, ‘Well, what do you care about,’ and the answer is, ‘Poverty is so high,’ well, that’s SDG 1 and 2 … I think it is a communication problem.”

This U.N. framework is presently serving as a guide, of sorts, for countries as they now focus on how the goals can be implemented, Barredo suggests.

“It is a fine line to walk, and in some ways it can be beneficial that the framework is not so set in stone if you are talking about having opportunities to revise and refine and strengthen the agenda,” she said. “You can see how some countries are waiting to see how things shake out before they go ahead and other leaders just want to get started now.”

Not just for the poor

There is a recognized need for a global indicator framework to unite all countries, including richer ones that were excluded from the MDG agenda.

Australia, for example, scores extremely high on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, but still now needs to focus on the SDGs that address gender equality, climate change, education and health, says John Thwaites, chair of SDSN for Australia and the Pacific region.

“One key aim is thinking about how best to implement the goals in Australia and in the region. We’re a highly developed country surrounded by developing countries,” Thwaites explained. “To date, the Australian government has tended to see the goals as international rather than a domestic project and we have sought to put it on the domestic agenda, as well.”

Melbourne, so far, is the only Australian city with a long-term strategy on Global Goals implementation, but the plan is to broaden this inclusion to other cities and government sectors.

“There are very different circumstances in different countries,” he wrote to Devex. “It makes sense for a developed country like Australia to develop different indicators relating to the SDGs to those in poor and developing countries … Another key challenge for developed countries is to ensure that indicators cover different geographies and social backgrounds so that ‘no one is left behind.’”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.