What counts and what can be counted in the SDGs

On February 18th a mid-day side event: “Robust and Measurable SDGs: Launch of report on scientific review of targets for the Sustainable Development Goals-the science perspective” was organized by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in partnership with the International Social Science Council (ISSC).  The authors included forty-one people from the natural and social sciences in 21 countries and the event hosted a platform of 5 women contributors from different parts of the world presenting their particular angles on the document.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets were reviewed and the report focuses on a variety of issues ranging from the problem with targets, their double edged nature, the integration of goals and implementability as well as measurability and their links to appropriate country situations.  It found that 29% of targets were well defined, that 54% needed more work, while 17% were weak or non essential.

Each of the presenters, focusing on different goals, provided their criticisms, some of which were unique, but many overlapped. Among the more challenging critiques were those made by Dr. Susan Parnell, an urban geographer at the University of Cape Town who focused on Goal #11, “Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable. She pointed out the need to link the goals to local action, to legitimate them at the local scale. With an urban specialty, she pointed to the complexity and complex mechanisms needed for urban environments and most important stressed the importance of the exercise in raising and confronting the difficulties of this type of analysis.
Dr. Michelle Scobie from the Institute of Internal Relations at the University of the West Indies in relation to Goal #16, Promote Peaceful and Inclusive Societies for Sustainable Development, Provide Access to Justie for all and Build Effective, Accountable and Inclusive Institutions at all Levels”, raised the question of how to integrate SDGs with existing development policy and raised the question of what policy integration means. What is the goals’ relevance, how they resonate with local priorities, that is the task of “endogenizing”, what are the new ways of governing that unlock cross-boundary knowledge networks and the challenge of building policies across silos. Where are the voices from the ground, what is their legitimacy, how are goals to be achieved and how to integrate and implement policies. What are the existential threats that affect policy making, such as limited resources, natural disasters, climate change, etc. The question of how to develop good governance permeated her presentation.

Although indicators were mentioned, primarily as a problem, the question of how to develop them was not at issue in this session. Primarily the problem of integrating multiple dimensions, often overlapping and contradictory were pointed to. Similarly the questions of monitoring and evaluation were pointed to as upcoming problems in the indicator work to come.
Meanwhile, diplomats that were negotiating in another room the declaration that will act as a preamble to the SDGs commented off the record that the experts' report is valuable but “it misses the point that the SDGs are a political document”.

The experts argue, for example, that target 1.4 which requires all to have “equal rights to economic resources, access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property" is "far too complicated and multi-faceted to be useful and measurable"?

There are indeed many components in this target, which could have been separated, and the components may be difficult to measure and compara internationally, but each of them represents a meaningful political commitment around which constituencies can rally to demand effective implementation.

Similarly, goal 8.3 promotes “development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises including through access to financial services”.

The experts argue that "the target is not relevant in this form because it cannot be measured."

Thus, very meaningful political concepts such as "decent job creation" risk being taking off the wish list on grounds that they are technically "meaningless".

Thus, when contextualized in the power-play of the UN General Assembly discussion, the science perspective of the targets and indicators can takes on very different implications from those intended by the experts. Many important targets and aspects of the hard-won gains in the SDG outcome document may be dismissed as un-measurable and once out of the list they will not be reintroduced in other parts of the document.

In September 2015 the heads of State and governments of the United Nations are expected to approve a new “development agenda” that will consist of a preamble, known as “the declaration”, a list of goals (the SDGs), their means of implementation and a the agreed follow-up mechanisms.

Compiled with inputs from Eva Friedlaender, Bhumika Muchhala and Roberto Bissio.