Contact FutureLearn for Support
Skip main navigation
We use cookies to give you a better experience, if that’s ok you can close this message and carry on browsing. For more info read our cookies policy.
We use cookies to give you a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or read our cookies policy for more information.
An image of the world taken from space

Monitoring the success of the SDGs

So far, we have discussed ways to estimate the impact of interventions and programmes. But can we measure our overall social and economic progress, in other words, the impact of the efforts of all people involved in working towards progress?

The SDGs reflect the multidimensionality of progress, and represent an ultimate yardstick for human development. Each of the goals provides specific targets to be achieved over the next 15 years. In total, there are 169 targets across 17 goals, with 304 proposed indicators to show progress.

Targets are aims set to achieve by 2030 and indicators are observable and measurable entities that serves to define a concept in a practical way.

So, for example, in SDG 4: Quality Education, the first target is, 4.1, “to ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.”

One indicator for measuring this is primary completion rates for girls and boys. Another is secondary completion rates for boys and girls. And another is proficiency for boys and girls across learning outcomes.

The wide ranging set of targets is a direct reaction to criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) process. As we have already learned, the MDGs are the previous incarnation of the SDGs agreed at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000. The following three criticisms of the MDGs are worthy of note:

  1. Narrow scope: A failure to include political and human rights, equality, and too little an emphasis on environmental issues, infrastructure and conditions for the private sector to grow.

  2. Forgetting the unmeasured: For example, education goals focused solely on primary level and the quantity of children in primary schools. Secondary and tertiary level were absent and the quality of education children received was not captured.

  3. Easily measured: The MDGs focused predominantly on the material aspects of deprivation over non-material ones. This led to a more limited concept of what poverty was. Initially, this was not apparent as it took time for the MDGs to become influential in development policy making. By 2012, donors and developing country governments were aligning their policies to achieve improvements in the MDG indicators. It was at this point that the weaknesses in the MDGs became apparent. By contrast, the SDGs comprise both indicators and related targets for 2030.

For example, the new SDG 5: Gender Equality, seeks to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. It is made up of seven international goals and five suggested complementary national indicators. Variation will exist in the number and type of national indicators. The twelve indicators of this goal are an attempt to capture as many dimensions of gender equality as is feasible.

While the SDGs overcome some of the weaknesses of the MDGs, a number of important issues remain.

  • First, national statistics (the data upon which the SDGs are built) come with too great a time lag – often three or more years late. They are all too often incomplete and of poor quality, especially from the poorest countries. The reality is that in many places, the data are insufficient for the goals to serve as either a management tool or as a real-time report card.

  • Second, while the UN has called for greater investment in building independent, impartial, national statistical capabilities and strengthening standards, in reality the capacity for small countries to collect the vast data required is likely to remain limited.

  • Third, there is a more profound issue associated with governments and donors having a strong focus on the SDGs. The SDGs do not provide guidance on the best policy changes, prioritisation, or a roadmap to development. Essentially, they attempt to capture almost everything that can conceivably matter and is measurable. Policymakers are instead looking for strategies, linked to a theory of social or economic change, and investment priorities for their scarce resources. The SDGs simply do not provide this.

  • Lastly, a final criticism is that a ‘Revolution in Data’, as the UN report calls it, may be of intense interest to elite development professionals but not relevant to the lives of the poor.

Let’s end our discussion on targets and indicators on a positive note. Very real progress was made during the 15 years of the MDGs. Many global targets were met. Admittedly, this was mostly driven by the performance of Asia and South America and strong economic growth in China and India. That said, much progress was also achieved in Sub-Saharan Africa, even when targets were not met.

The progress reports of the MDGs made clear that future efforts should focus on failed states and areas of conflict.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Achieving Sustainable Development

Trinity College Dublin