Indicating the SDGs: our concerns and proposals

This week the third Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) meeting to discuss the post-2015 agenda convenes in New York. As member states discuss the actual goals and targets, and the indicators which will be used to measure success, WaterAid’s Policy Analyst - Monitoring & Accountability, Tim Brewer, looks at our top three concerns about the final outcomes, and offers our alternatives.


25 Mar 2015

WaterAid has been pleased by the great efforts going into building and delivering proposals for the goals, targets and indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but we have some reservations about the indicative indicators as they stand.

1) Delivering on the sophistication of the Open Working Group (OWG)

The OWG’s proposal for a drinking water target (6.1) includes at least five elements and the proposed sanitation target has seven to ten. It is therefore crucial that member states do not reduce the sophistication of targets through including too few core indicators. By including a target for ‘sanitation and hygiene’, the OWG has intrinsically included two aims – sanitation and hygiene are separate, and therefore must have a set of core indicators each.

The argument for having a small number of indicators is that having too many would make the SDGs unwieldy. However, this point of view has no justification, and the definition of ‘too much’ appears entirely arbitrary.

The experience of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has shown us that although goals, and, to some extent, targets, need to be communicable to have political and public support, indicators have a more behind-the-scenes role primarily of importance for insiders in each sector to monitor progress.

Public awareness of the MDGs is still, after 15 years, very low. Indicators are essentially unknown outside specialist circles, and it is likely the same will be true of the SDGs. There is no point in reducing indicators to 100 if five would be too many.

Conversely, from the point of view of developing countries, 100 would be too few to give a real understanding of their progress. National governments already collect data on far more indicators than that to support their plans, and global datasets of more than 1,300 indicators collected at national level already exist.

In the past, MDG indicators have come under fire for being too limited, rather than too many. Critiques of the simple indicator for safe water – ‘use of an improved source’ – dogged the Joint Monitoring Programme and led in part to the formation of the sector-wide consultation preparing for the SDG discussions.

Indicators must be sufficient but not excessive, and sophisticated enough to truly measure progress. It is the results – how we are doing on the goals – that will need to be communicated, not the details of the indicators used to calculate results.

2) Creating perverse incentives: ‘all for some’ or ‘some for all’

The fundamental challenge for member states to consider is the purpose and meaning of ‘safe’ water in Target 6.1, and ‘adequate’ sanitation in Target 6.2.

For water, the proposed goal includes two ideas that the WASH sector technical experts’ consultation found to be, in a sense, contradictory: universal access by 2030 and ‘safe’ water. If ‘safe’ means ‘guaranteed free of contamination’, this is a level of service above the current definition of ‘improved source’. To achieve the target of universal access at this level, a momentous shift in global ambition would be required.

Our concern is that taking this higher standard of ‘safe’ as the ‘minimum unit’ of water service puts improvements to equity at risk – and creates a push for ‘all for some’ rather than ‘some for all’. If providing improved, but not perfect, water sources to rural people is not counted towards the global target, there is a disincentive for national ministries and partners to do so – undermining the whole point of a pro-poor post-2015 framework.

‘Equitable’ should mean that an indicator is reported with sufficient disaggregation to assess the equity of progress across different groups. ‘Equitable’ should also mean that the definition of ‘access’ should not incentivise provision of higher levels of service before everyone has the minimum threshold that satisfies the human right. Under the terms of the human right to sanitation, adequate services must be safe, physically accessible, affordable and appropriate or culturally sensitive.

‘Open defecation free’ does not meet the requirements of the human right, but ‘safely managed’ is too hard to achieve for rural poor people, and risks pushing development practice back to the easier task of improving service for the well-off in urban areas. The indicator that would incentivise equitable progress with no less ambition than the human right is ‘Percentage of the population with access to basic sanitation at home’.

3) Getting past the household

The OWG frames both Targets 6.1 and 6.2 in the context of universality. The framework as a whole is geared towards making progress for everyone, everywhere.

The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector technical experts consultation proposed that we move beyond the limited ambition of the MDGs, which focused on the household, and also look at extra-household settings. The most important settings were agreed to be schools and health facilities. These are both high-risk and high-usage environments. Providing WASH in these settings therefore offers disproportionately high potential gains in health, education and wellbeing outcomes.

The indicative indicator framework as it stands for Goal 6 does not reference extra-household settings, and we feel this is a missed opportunity and a lowering of ambition against the OWG’s understanding of what universal would mean.

Our alternative proposals

We accept that too many indicators could be burdensome for countries to implement and report on. The core indicators for global monitoring must also be necessary at national level. The likelihood is that countries will measure far more than the core parameters described, in order to pursue their own national agendas. However:

a) One single core indicator, as proposed in the aforementioned draft, would be insufficient to deal with the complexity implied by the current wording of the WASH targets.
b) Core indicators proposed later in this blog, and by the WASH sector technical experts consultation process, are already monitored at national level in most countries, and they need to be better monitored in all countries. They could be aggregated to a global level by the JMP without additional burden on countries.

We propose that member states consider a ‘ladder of access’, with a minimum of three core indicators for each target that together fully capture the primary aims and the most important elements of the proposed target. These would be based on indicators that have garnered wide agreement through the consultation process.

Further, we note that, by including a target for ‘sanitation and hygiene’, the OWG have of necessity included two aims. Sanitation and hygiene are distinct, and therefore must each have a set of core indicators.

Our proposals do not conflict with the option to include a wider set of supporting indicators as needed.They simply address the importance of monitoring, and being accountable for progress towards the stated targets, including both achievement of a minimum level of access for everyone, and the raised ambition of safely managed services across the world.

On the basis of analysis of the proposed targets, we put forward the following core indicators, which are already defined, measurable and necessary for national-level progress. Of these, half (marked in bold) are already proposed within the paper from policy and statistical experts from specialised agencies and entities.

For water (Target 6.1):

  1. % of population using a basic water service at home
  2. % of population using a safely managed water service at home
  3. % of schools and hospitals offering safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services

For sanitation (Target 6.2):

  1. 1) % of people using a safely managed sanitation service at home
  2. 2) % of schools and hospitals offering safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services
  3. 3) % of people using basic sanitation at home

For hygiene (Target 6.2):

  1. % of schools and health centres offering safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services
  2. % of people who have a handwashing facility with soap and water at home

Goal 6 would be considered met only if:

  1. 100% of people use basic water, sanitation and hygiene services at home
  2. The proportions of people not using safely managed water and sanitation services at home are halved
  3. 100% of schools and health centres offer safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene services

What next?

As summarised in Ross Bailey’s blog, we would like three things to happen during this week’s member states discussion:

  1. For member states to agree that one to two indicators per target is not enough to capture the complexity contained within the targets.
  2. For member states to review all indicators against the question, “Will this incentivise action for the poorest and most marginalised?”
  3. For member states to agree that there should be additional stepping stone indicators to show that progress is being made in an equitable way and that the poorest people are seeing improvement towards the ultimate aim.

If the answers to one and two are negative, we strongly urge member states to dedicate some time to number three.

Tim Brewer is WaterAid’s Policy Analyst - Monitoring & Accountability. He tweets as @TimBrewer1 and you can read more of his blog posts here.

For global policy, practice and advocacy updates and discussion, follow @wateraid on Twitter.