Measuring Progress Towards Sustainable Development Goals

By László Pintér on January 6, 2013

Building on an initiative led by Colombia and Guatemala, governments represented at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development provided a mandate for launching an intergovernmental process to identify sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The process to develop the SDGs will run over a period of three years and conclude by 2015, the end of the implementation period for the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With the end of the MDG implementation period approaching, the question of how much progress has or hasn't been achieved is bound to feature prominently in political and scientific discourse.

Immediately following the agreement on the SDG mandate, most of the discussion focused on the approach to developing the goals themselves and how the SDG process could be integrated with the ongoing process to define the broader post-2015 development agenda. This paper argues that SDG process planning should also pay specific attention to the development of the evidence base—particularly sustainable development goal indicators (SDGIs).

While indicators were developed and used in reporting progress towards the MDGs, the approach to developing SDGIs must be systematically strengthened. One way to achieve this would be by designing the SDGI process (and ultimately the indicator system itself) based on a coherent set of purpose-built principles. One example of such principles is the Bellagio Sustainability Assessment and Measurement Principles or BellagioSTAMP. The question is not simply what to accept as evidence and indicators, but how these are conceptualized and developed, by whom, and how evidence informs the envisioning of transition pathways, implementation mechanisms, monitoring and reporting.

Paragraph 250 of the Rio outcome document specifically points to the need for tracking progress towards the goals by identifying targets and indicators. The political discourse on SDGs takes place in the context of an ongoing science policy discourse on the need for revising the framework and details of progress measurement. This also received significant attention at Rio+20, and resulted in a request in Paragraph 38 of the outcome document to the UN Statistical Commission to launch a new process in this regard. The two agendas—the agenda on goals and the agenda on measurement—are linked, and if properly coordinated can lead to strengthened synergy and stronger overall progress. This is also supported by a rapidly growing global community engaged in revising indicator systems based on the concepts of sustainability, genuine progress, and human well-being.

This working paper discusses the rationale for assessing progress towards SDGs and targets, and provides initial guidance for the development of SDG indicators (SDGIs) that can help achieve this. Based on the guidance, this paper discusses workplan options for integrating the development of measurement functions, tools and capabilities into the overall SDG process from the start.

Participating experts

Report details

Measurement, Assessment, and Modelling
Sustainable Development Goals
Focus area
Act Together
IISD, 2013