Are We There Yet? Five criteria for successfully measuring progress on the SDGs

To measure progress, we need a starting point. Where are we with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

By Livia Bizikova, László Pintér, Peter Denton on January 5, 2016

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to attaining the recently minted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is determining where we are on the journey towards accomplishing them.

To measure progress, we require a starting point, an initial state, as well as some means of measuring how far we have come and how much longer it will take to reach the goal.

We need indicators throughout the entire SDG policy cycle. Indicators will prove key in sustainable development reports and assessments of progress if we are to have accountability at local, national and global levels for the commitments the SDGs require.[1] Indicators at these different levels, moreover, must be commonly understood and reported if we are to align the results in useful and informative ways.

Put simply, we have to count the same things, in the same ways, to accurately measure our progress.

In December 2015, the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) submitted its report to the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC). Of the 231 proposed SDG indicators, 151 are well-established and many statistical agencies already report on them. The other 80 indicators require more in-depth research and discussions. 

Looking at this large set of diverse indicators it raises a crucial question: What shared principles and criteria would provide us with a consensus on what we need to measure and how?[2]

First, indicators need to be manageable, able to be regularly monitored and reported on. Even in wealthier countries with significant institutional capacity, collecting data and reporting on many indicators can be both technically challenging and too costly. 150 indicators are far too many. We must start with a core set of "must-have" indicators.

Second, indicators must be relevant for the sustainable development priorities in their particular context. Relevance must be agreed upon by governments, statisticians and all relevant stakeholders involved in the implementation of a specific SDG and its targets. Good progress has been made at the UN level, but it will be difficult to replicate down the statistical ladder to local authorities in each country. 

Third, indicators must monitor actual changes over time. They must be "state" indicators, measuring the state of resources. While almost half of the SDG indicators so far are state indicators, generating consistent data for them at all levels will prove challenging.

Fourth, when SDG state indicators are not available, we should be able to use proxies to measure management activities, such as the use of sustainable practices; policies to regulate resource management; allocation of financial resources; and strategies for risk reduction. These types of indicators may also help encourage specific actions by directly pointing to what still needs to be done.

Fifth, and finally, indicators must cover all key dimensions of a broad sustainable development framework. The SDGs recognize the importance of governance and culture, not simply socioeconomic and environmental conditions. For example, currently there are no state indicators for SDG 10 (“Reduce inequality within and among countries”), SDG 12 (“Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”) and SDG 13 (“Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”). Measuring progress in these areas will require developing a consensus around qualitative indicators that are applicable across different cultural contexts.

Given the small window of time we have to achieve the SDGs, it is imperative that a concerted effort be made to agree on all the necessary indicators to measure our progress at local, national and global levels.

When the answer to that persistent question “are we there yet?” is “no,” we must be able to give a further answer that lets our audience know how much longer it will take, at the rate and direction we are currently travelling.

To learn more about the suggested indicators for the SDGs, listen to our recent webinar, SDGs National and sub-national Implementation and Indicators.


[1] Overall indicator sets were proposed, among others, by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), while others put forward indicators on specific priorities, including a report by the United Nations Environment Programme and IISD on indicators for sustainable consumption and production (View Report). 

[2] These principles can build on earlier principles developed for sustainability measurement and assessment, such as the BellagioSTAMP, developed by the the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and IISD.