09/29/2016 11:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Measuring Progress through Data and Narratives: Celebrating the First Anniversary of the 2030 Agenda


Member States of the United Nations recognized the power of goal setting for achieving objectives through their decision in June 2012, to negotiate a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They confirmed this recognition in September 2015, when they adopted 17 SDGs and 169 targets at the UN Sustainable Development Summit. These decisions embody the expectation that setting goals matters in governance settings, and that data to measure implementation provide critical tools to enable progress towards the goals.

The global community designed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs to be measurable. They sought to ensure that actors at all levels could assess their progress and citizens could hold their governments accountable to the promises they embraced. However, two critical components for this accountability framework were left unfinished when governments agreed to the SDGs in September 2015: indicators to measure advances towards each SDG target, and a follow-up and review mechanism to ensure that progress is built upon each year until 2030.

During the first year of the SDG endeavor, the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), a body of national statisticians from several countries that reports to the UN Statistical Commission, proposed a set of 231 global indicators for the SDGs. These indicators are already being used to assess achievement of the SDGs by various countries and organizations, based largely on existing data. However, the IAEG-SDGs' work continues, as it has been asked to develop a plan to technically refine the indicators over the course of the SDGs' 15-year period. Capacity building to collect and assess the data will be critical to ensure that the data-driven Agenda is steered by a comprehensive, quantitative assessment of global achievements, and that areas in need of further attention receive it.

In July, the follow-up and review component of the 2030 Agenda got underway, as twenty-two countries provided voluntary national reviews (VNRs) during the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, messages emanating from this meeting emphasized the need to implement the SDGs in their entirety, to reach the most vulnerable, to develop ways to better collect data, to mobilize resources at the national and international levels, and to enhance coordination, coherence and integration in the delivery of the SDGs.

The indicators and subsequent follow-up and review sessions will establish a basis for the narrative on how well the 17 SDGs and 169 targets are being implemented. Goal areas and regions in which successes are identified will be celebrated, while new efforts and resources will be focused or refocused based on the changes in the percentages of the components that are measured. This process is the basis of the goal-based framework and as it should be, but it will be the stories behind the numbers, in addition to the data, that will contribute to progress on implementing this agenda.

The success of the SDGs will require individuals across the globe to implement this new approach to development in their daily lives. The indicators will tell us how well we are doing as we strive to achieve this goal, but communications experts tell us that achieving the changes will require more than data and numbers. Compelling stories about successful projects can provide greater motivation to change than facts and figures. Learning about the steps that one country has taken to identify its national priorities and to develop an organizational structure and roadmap for implementing the SDGs may motivate more follow-on action than an accounting of the number of countries that have adopted one approach over another.

The stories of early movers and initial recommendations for action can be collected immediately, before the indicator framework is complete and countries are trained for the new data collection requirements. Many such stories were related at the opening of the 71st UN General Assembly, which marked the first year since it had adopted the SDGs. In an effort to achieve the biodiversity-related SDGs, for example, Belize reported that it has protected 36% of its territory. Singapore informed the assembled global community that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has adopted a roadmap to achieve a haze-free zone by 2020. In regard to SDG 13 (climate action), Suriname highlighted its status as a carbon-negative country, noting that it has over 90% forest cover and a deforestation rate of 0.02%. With regard to SDG 5 (gender equality), Somalia announced that it has adopted a 30% quota for women in Parliament. On food security (Goal 2), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines informed UN Member States that it has developed a 'Zero Hunger Trust Fund,' which comprises a series of tools to ensure no citizen will go to bed hungry by the year 2020.

Stories like these bring examples of what we are collectively striving to achieve to life. They help to show to whom the goals matter, and why we are striving to measure progress towards them. SDG implementation will be measured during the next fourteen years by the indicator framework, but it will be driven by the stories that are told at every level about what a sustainable world looks like.

Photo courtesy IISD Reporting Services