Measuring the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – an update

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Report from one of the sessions at the RSS 2017 Conference. More reports of conference sessions are listed here.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been agreed and have been well under way since 2015. But how achievable will it be for the UK and other countries to measure progress in all of these goals? A session organised by the Office for National Statistics addressed this question.

Glenn Everett, deputy director of well-being, inequalities, sustainability and environment at ONS, gave a brief background of the SDGs. Developed with a view to build and expand on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs initially had 12 goals and 50 targets. However, by the time they were formally launched in 2015 the remit had expanded to 17 goals with 169 targets.

This means there are now 244 indicators regarding gender, ethnicity and so on. ONS will need to report on some of these indicators. Getting all of this this data out there will be a challenge and requires cooperation across the Government Statistical Service as well as exploring new data sources. ONS is currently consulting on this and a reporting platform is under development.

Kim Bradford-Smith from Department for International Development (DfID) explained that the challenges in getting SDG data out are far greater in poorer countries which may not have birth and death registers or a regular population census.

Taking an example of the SDG Goal 5 – gender equality, which has nine targets and 14 indicators – Kim described what this looks like in developing countries. Too often women are not identified separately in datasets. In theory there are tools to get this data but in practice some of the tools are not designed for the job and compromises will need to be made. The Global Forum on Gender Statistics is working on this – but even with these efforts there may not be much data.

The MDGs were criticised for being a ‘tyranny of averages’ - many national averages didn’t count everyone, particularly poorer people. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development pledges that no one will be left behind. The big challenge, Kim said, would be to measure the P20 – the poorest 20% of the world’s population. There are moves to see whether big data could be used to measure some of these indicators.

A discussion led by Matthew Powell of Oxford Policy Management explored some of the other challenges faced in measuring the SDGs. However, there are opportunities too, to invest in statistics at all levels, forge partnerships to deliver the reporting and develop new methods such as data linkage and web scraping.

The meeting closed with a request from Jenny Church to sign up for the Royal Statistical Society’s International Development Section if interested in the section’s work in this and other areas.

  • This session was titled Sustainable Development Goals and took place on Wednesday 6 September 2017.
  • This article was updated on 21 September 2017, replacing the sentence 'Women are often missing from data in these countries' with 'Too often women are not identified separately in datasets'.

RSS Conference Social Statistics section International Development Statistics Section (IDSS)