What country governments need to better measure the SDGs

A worker with a community-based disaster risk reduction project collects data from women in Badakhshan, Afghanistan as part of a village-level assessment of hazards, vulnerability, capacity and risk. Photo by: Luke Bostian / Aga Khan Foundation / CC BY-NC

Measuring progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals is a daunting task for all countries, with 230 distinct indicators to quantify.

The specific challenges for low- and middle-income countries are starting to become clear as states assess their capacity, determine their needs and create action plans. While preparedness varies by country, representatives of some of the first countries to present their SDG plans to the United Nations told Devex they need better data — in terms of geographical coverage, frequency and specificity — and will require some help, be it through capacity building assistance, funding or partnerships.

Most countries have started by assessing what data exists and its quality. Almost all countries, including the most developed, lack at least some data needed to measure the SDG indicators.

In Colombia, one of the countries that spoke with Devex at the High Level Political Forum last month, the government has determined that it has existing statistics for about 130 indicators, partial information for 72 and no information for about 38. Within the data the government does have, frequency is a concern, said Simon Gaviria Munoz, Colombia’s minister of planning. Some information is only collected every five or 10 years, which makes it difficult to track change. Many of the targets require disaggregation, and the government will need to improve the quality of samples.

The quality of rural and urban data also differs in some countries; metropolitan areas tend to have better data, while rural areas are sometimes left out of data sets or only included in a more limited capacity. Data at the subnational level is a key data gap for the Philippines. The government is exploring options including pilot assessments, working with subnational administrations and corporate partnerships, said Lisa Grace Bersales, the Philippines national statistician and civil registrar general of the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Capacity building and support

The countries Devex spoke with said they would benefit from additional capacity building and technical assistance to improve local data and statistical skills, both in national statistical offices as well as across ministries and at a local level.

In Sierra Leone, for example, there is the political will to better engage on data, but very few resources said Joseph Sam Sesay special adviser to president of Sierra Leone focusing on the SDGs. The country doesn’t plan to measure all 200-plus indicators; instead, the government will focus on a smaller subset of markers that they believe will add the most value to the development process instead, he said.

Thus far, Sierra Leone has tentative baseline data on 59 indicators. The existing system provides some statistical data on agriculture, education, health and macroeconomic development. But only four ministries — finance, agriculture, education and health — out of 24 have an established statistical system.

Sesay estimates that establishing a data collection system, testing it and making it functional to collect a comprehensive SDG data set would cost at least about $50 million. That’s money Sierra Leone, which emerged from a civil war in just 2002 and was hit by an Ebola epidemic in 2014, doesn’t have.

In the Philippines, where the national statistical system is more robust, the needs are different, but they could still benefit from technical assistance and training support, said Bersales.

The Philippine Statistics Authority doesn’t have funding to send a lot of staff overseas for training, despite support and funding from the government, she said. It has developed partnerships, such as one with Bloomberg Philanthropies around health data, which brings experts to the Philippines to train a larger number of staff than could be reached otherwise.

Be wary of a country’s needs

The SDG agenda is designed to be country-driven, but tensions remain between country priorities and those of of funders and international partner organizations, including when it comes to data.

Many African countries are under pressure to collect data not just for the SDGs but for the African Union’s Agenda 2063 as well. In Sierra Leone, the president has also specified about 30 key benchmarks he wants to be tracked. Sierra Leone is working to streamline the benchmarks and indicators because there is overlap with other agendas, but it remains a huge task for the country to establish the necessary databases, Sesay said.

Development agencies and funders also often have their own objectives to be measured, not always in line with country plans. Bersales of the Philippines Statistical Authority said her office sometimes receives requests for specific surveys for international partners. She tries to ensure that such pilot projects can be institutionalized and made sustainable, she said.

The SDG focus on country plans and local monitoring is helping, and is leading to greater dialogue, Bersales said. Countries need to be strong about their priorities and international agencies need to be flexible. If governments allocate funding for core statistical functions, those agencies will face less outside pressure, she said.

Partnerships can also help resolve, rather than create, tension, Devex heard from several countries. Countries are seeking out partners particularly from the private sector to help with data collection and real-time use.

Making use of data

Having a robust data collection system is worth only as much as the data is used to guide public policy, ensure accountability and track progress — including by citizens.

In Colombia, early work on SDG indicators is already leading to policy change. Colombia didn’t measure food waste, or the amount food discarded every year, but the government assumed that it wasn’t an issue. The first study, spurred by the SDGs, found that Colombia discards 10 million tons of food a year. In a country that has 27.8 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to World Bank statistics, reducing waste could make a big difference.

“That single data point sparked a great deal of movement,” Munoz said. Efforts are underway to address the issue, including a partnership between ABACO, a national network of food banks, and the Center for Latin American Logistics Innovation, a member of the MIT Global SCALE Network, aimed at reducing the “wastage and improve the logistics of distributing surplus food to impoverished communities.” Legislation to impose fines on enterprises that throw away food needlessly, is being considered. It was a quick example of how data can improve public policy and raise awareness.

Munoz said a key in putting data into practice is to “differentiate between inertia and the active role government, civil society, private sector” play in moving an indicator in one direction or another.

In the Philippines, the statistics authority must often manage policymakers’ expectations about the availability of data and explain which data is of sufficient quality to be used, Bersales said. Improving the frequency of data collection and collecting larger, better samples could improve the accuracy of data on specific populations. The statistics authority is also working on a communication plan to better communicate to policymakers and media about how to use data appropriately.

Since data collection, like the SDGs, will be country-driven, it seems clear that more details about what and how progress will be measured will continue to emerge, and new lessons will be learned, as more countries unveil their plans for achieving the global goals.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.