The clock is ticking: three years in, how much closer are we to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the agreed blueprint for world improvement between 2015 and 2030?
Determining whether there has been progress in the first place isn’t easy – with 17 different goals across social, environmental and economic development, it is hard to know where to start. At the global level, there are two principal pieces of information: the annual Progress Report of the UN Secretary General, and the so-called Voluntary National Reviews that countries can choose to do. These are discussed at the annual High-Level Political Forum, where governments come together to review progress.
A couple of days ago, an advance copy of this year’s Progress report was published by the United Nations and it confirms all our fears about slow progress as well as deeply flawed monitoring arrangements.
Firstly, the report is based on the global SDG indicators. Each target has been translated into an indicator that should help us determine whether we are moving in the right direction. However, many targets are too complex to be captured in one single indicator. On top of that, both data and methodology are missing for many indicators, which means that only some of the targets are currently being reported on, making for a remarkably incomplete and skewed picture.
To take one example, in the case of target 8.8 on labour rights and safe working environments, the report doesn’t even mention labour rights as that indicator is still under development. The same goes for post-secondary education and education for human rights and sustainable development (targets 4.3, 4.4, 4.6 and 4.7). What makes matters worse, is that some incomplete indicators are arbitrarily reported on, such as the much-debated indicator on learning in primary and secondary education (target 4.1).
Secondly, the report approaches the 17 goals as separate areas of work, reproducing the siloed approach that the SDGs set out to challenge, and failing to explore or foster any interlinkages. This is problematic also given that the goals are only a part of Agenda 2030; nothing is said about the Means of implementation, or the Follow-up and review, both of which are integral dimensions of Agenda 2030 that member states have committed to realising, alongside the goals.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the report is just a list of seemingly randomly chosen facts and figures. For example, the report concludes that in 2016, only 61 % of primary school teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa were estimated to be qualified. And that in 2011-15, only 30 % of countries “spend between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of total government expenditure on education as recommended in the Education 2030 Framework for Action” (based on the 151 countries for which we have data). These figures are presented as a snapshot without any baseline, making comparisons and analysis over time impossible. In conclusion, by reading the report you won’t find out whether we are progressing at fast enough a pace. But what is worse is that there is no message from the UN and no political analysis of the direction of travel; it simply informs us that “82 per cent of new development projects had objectives aligned with national priorities” in 2016, and that more than half of these projects “relied on parallel systems and data to monitor progress and development results”, effectively undermining not only these countries’ policy space and coherence, but the very essence of Agenda 2030.
Some would probably argue that messengers mustn’t be shot, but the UN Secretary General is more than a spokesperson for a flawed system; the stewardship of sustainable development is in the hands of the UN and that requires a much more proactive approach. In his report, the Secretary General should underline as well as regret that not all the necessary information is available; provide an initial analysis of the direction of travel; remind the member states of their commitment to Agenda 2030; and urgently call on them to step up their efforts.