With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) coming to an end, there has been an intense global focus on setting up a new developmental agenda and designing an accompanying indicator framework. While the MDGs have been heavily criticized for not capturing all key aspects of human development and failing to deliver data for the targets they set, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) face a different challenge. According to the Open Working Group (OWG) proposal, there are more than 169 targets representing a much broader agenda, each of the targets accompanied by several specific indicators. These indicators are mainly national (reported by each country).

Such a long list of indicators has been criticised for being difficult to communicate, and too unwieldy to manage – although the truth is that fully 69 indicators were tracked as part of the MDGs, many more have been enshrined in internationally endorsed agreements, and new development agendas such as climate change have new key indicators that express the emerging development ambitions of many citizens. Although tracking the 300 plus indicators suggested by the UN Statistical Commission may put additional strain on countries’ statistical offices, many are already tracked, and efforts should be made to support the monitoring of new ones. But negotiations around the SDG indicator list are currently focussing on how to reduce the number of indicators, rather than how to truly measure what is needed.

In a recent article published by the Lancet, the authors argue that the solution to this deadlock is a two track approach to the indicator framework (see the chart below). Such an indicator framework would consist of a limited set of high level political ‘umbrella’ indicators as well as a raft of more detailed technical indicators that can capture the breadth of the new agenda whilst not forgetting failed MDGs. A list of about thirty political indicators could be drawn up to assess the progress of nations and the planet. On the other hand, additional technical indicators could assess progress against specific areas of implementation and could include a detailed list of 300 or more indicators mainly at the national level. Additionally, sub-national and regional indicators could be developed by countries and multi-country groupings.

Figure 1

Figure: The two-track approach to measuring SDGs.

Source: The Lancet (2015)

Such an indicator framework would allow both effective communication with national and international policy makers and advocacy groups as well as sound measurement of progress in specific areas of socio-economic development. This approach should be considered in the context of the most recent debates on Financing for Development (FfD) and the commitments enshrined in The Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, as part of the initiatives on the data revolution. An effective implementation of such a two-track SDG framework would require a close alignment of the key country level developmental priorities with the global sustainable development agenda and an establishment of clear monitoring and accountability mechanisms responsible for tracking progress.

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Authors: Sylvia Szabo, Research Fellow, University of Southampton; Zoe Matthews, Professor of Global Health and Social Statistics in the Division of Social Statistics and Demography, University of Southampton, and Adviser to the UNFPA’s Sexual & Reproductive Health Branch.

Image: A businessman walks down the staircase of an office building in Tokyo February 14, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai