Measure what you treasure: the dangers of over-simplifying indicators for the SDGs

With six months left before the Heads of State summit signs the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into action, our SDG Advocacy Coordinator Ross Bailey looks at the risks we face if too few indicators are included at the global level.


24 Mar 2015

Three months into 2015 and the Inter-Governmental negotiations are already a third of the way through. Meetings in January and February worked through stock-taking and feedback on the declaration, and now the third Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) meeting is underway, in which member states will discuss the actual goals, targets and indicators that will define September’s SDGs.

The goals and targets are very much the tip of the iceberg for the outcome of this process. Come September, only the goals will be talked about on the evening news after the Heads of State summit, and even these may be subsumed into more communicable messages. However, the goals will all be underpinned by indicators, which, until recently, have received far less attention.

Member states are increasingly inclined to view the goals and targets of the Open Working Group (OWG) proposal as close to completion. Although we are a long way from the finish line (and, as one member state said at the last meeting, “No goal is agreed until all goals are agreed.”), this acceptance of limited negotiating space has put extra focus on the indicators. Indeed, while many of us expected at least one full session on negotiating the goals and targets, we now see half of the meeting is dedicated to indicators.

Proposing indicators

Over the past two months, member states have got far more involved in the indicator discussion. The co-facilitators of the IGN process asked the UN Statistical Commission to prepare a report on indicative global indicators for this week’s meeting. This report has involved experts from various UN agencies who have rapidly gathered indicators and laid them out for member states to see. The report has gone through a few iterations, but has finally been agreed and made available to member states ahead of the third IGN meeting.

Probably the most important issue is that both the co-facilitators and the chair of the UN statistical commission feel that the framework would be best served by a highly limited number of global indicators. As such, we have in front of us a proposal that limits the number of indicators to around two per target. We understand that both parties are concerned about the communicability of the framework (that too many indicators might make it unwieldy) and about the capacity of member states, especially low and middle-income countries, to report.

For water and sanitation (Goal 6), there are ten proposed indicators across the six outcome targets. Focusing on the targets related to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), there are three indicators split across two targets:

For target 6.1 on drinking water, the proposed indicator is ‘Percentage of population using safely managed drinking water services’.

For target 6.2 on sanitation and hygiene, the two proposed indicators are ‘Percentage of population using safely managed sanitation services’ and ‘Population with a hand washing facility with soap and water in the household’.

What next?

Although we are pleased to see the level of work that has gone into delivering these proposals and value the ambition that they set for the sector, WaterAid has concerns about the indicative indicators as they stand.

Member states have a long way to go before this framework is complete; even when it is, we expect the discussion about the indicators to run into 2016.

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 is not enough to capture the complexities involved.
  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 has been made in an equitable way and that the poorest are seeing improvement towards the ultimate aim of the target.

If the answers to 1 and 2 are negative, we strongly urge member states to dedicate some time to number 3.

Living up to our ambitions

When member states set out to build a successor framework to the MDGs, they repeatedly talked about learning lessons. Some lessons have been learned – we’ve had good consultations, we’ve secured some promises about data disaggregation and we might even start the first year with some actual targets.

But some haven’t – although we should celebrate progress on the drinking water target, we need to remember that ‘meeting the target’ meant little when Ebola struck the poor, rural citizens of Sierra Leone, who still have very limited access to WASH.

If we don’t create a framework that incentivises progress for the very poorest people, we will have failed to live up to the ambitions of the OWG. We treasure what we measure, so let’s make sure we’re setting out to count the rights things from the start.

Ross Bailey is a Campaigns Officer based in London and works on the post-2015 process. He tweets at @rossb82

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