Image by Bernard Sabiti
  • Blog
  • 19 May 2023

SDG learnings from the World Data Forum in Hangzhou: Falling between stools and masters

Are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) trying to be too many things to too many people? Is this the reason for the challenges documented in our recent discussion paper on the SDG monitoring framework?


Bill Anderson , Claudia Wells

The UN World Data Forum recently took place in Hangzhou, China. As a UN conference, aimed at spurring innovation, partnerships and high-level political and financial support, the forum can tend towards diplomacy over discussion, with government and multilateral officials and statisticians lining up to politely agree with each other and champion success. DI set out to invigorate proceedings with a debate on ‘Is the SDG Monitoring Framework Broken?’, which drew on our recent discussion paper of the same name. The full event recording is available at the end of the blog.

Our fear of being seen to be overly provocative was unfounded: there was widespread positive feedback from one of the largest side-event audiences, and surprising agreement coming from our diverse panel.

Three recurring themes emerged in the discussion:

  • How does a political vision translate into technical implementation?
  • Can a single framework both monitor performance and form the basis of policy?
  • How can a single agenda serve both global and national priorities?

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Political dream, technical nightmare?

Mark Hereward, UNICEF’s Chief Data Officer, argued that the trouble with both the SDG indicators and their precursors, the MDGs, is that their formulation was not solely a technical conversation. All sorts of consultations went into the SDGs that were entirely separate from any kind of technical discussion as to what could or should be measured. To translate that political push into something technically sound was always going to be difficult. Considering whether the machinery was broken, Hereward said “I think it was misbegotten […] I think we set up the SDG monitoring mechanism for more than one reason and it falls between two or three different stools because of that.”

Maciej Truszczynski, Chief Consultant with Statistics Denmark, echoed this. “The world is different in the UN General Assembly room and on the ground. So you are, let's say, more willing to adopt glorious visions but then implementing them is difficult.”

Informing policy or monitoring performance?

Saionara Reis, Team Leader for SDG Accountability at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, surprised the panel by suggesting that more – not fewer – indicators were required. “You cannot analyse the state of human rights in a country by looking at one or two indicators,” she argued.

Steve MacFeely, Director of Data and Analytics at the World Health Organization, explained that if you take that the SDGs as performance metrics then you need only a small number, but went on to say “If I was formulating policy I wouldn’t be using the SDG indicators. Because as Saionara says, there isn’t enough data on any particular topic, which is why you see all the different agencies have a proliferation of complementary indicators to inform policy.”

Global hegemony or national sovereignty?

The need for clarity around global versus national priorities has dogged those managing and measuring the SDGs from the very start, MacFeely argued : “If I was looking at the capacity development of a statistical system my starting point wouldn’t be the SDGs. It would be around the systems, which is a much more complicated conversation. Maybe that’s why it’s convenient for some people to focus on the SDGs because the conversation we should be having is much more complex and much more expensive.”

Mahadia Tunga, co-founder of the Tanzania Data Lab, explained that Tanzania’s SDG monitoring could have been much simpler if the national statistical system had been placed at the centre of reporting efforts, the coordinating role of the national statistics office had been respected and the whole process had been owned by the country. This would have capitalised on existing data.

From the other side of the same coin, Hereward argued that it would indeed make sense to maintain a smaller set of universal indicators that are directly relevant to all countries.

What else can be improved?

The event concluded with these thoughts.

Hereward: “One thing we could start by doing is to have this conversation when we talk about these SDG monitoring gaps. Let’s talk about them more intelligently. Are there gaps because they’re not relevant or are there gaps because we’re not able to measure them but they do actually matter in those countries? It’s not going to be an easy conversation but at least we could start with that.”

MacFeely: “Maybe the more interesting conversation now isn’t so much trying to fix the SDGs but really looking ahead to what’s going to come after. Statistics take a long time to develop so I think looking ahead to whatever comes in 2030 is worthwhile. That’s where there’s a huge opportunity.”

What next?

Despite wide acknowledgement that technical implementation of the SDGs’ political vision is difficult, and although it is impossible for one framework to serve so many masters, the framework is not without successes, and we need to acknowledge those as well as the flaws.

The fact that the measurement framework came to the statistical community for development as an independent process was an important step in itself. In addition, the SDGs have enabled huge progress in the statistical community, which came together to agree statistical definitions and methods for concepts that had been talked about politically but never measured.

What is important is that we bring these lessons to our thinking for beyond 2030. We must get clarity on the purpose of the global framework, is it about providing performance indicators or supporting decision-making?

Surely it is much more important to build national capacity for national monitoring than to build national capacity for international monitoring. How then can the data community facilitate the difficult conversation on how to best approach capacity development of accountable and truly sustainable national data ecosystems, and importantly the financing needed to support that approach?

We will leave you with one thought, echoing Tunga: we must consider sustainability from all angles and as part of that we must not forget the importance of data ecosystems at the subnational level. This is the level where the commitment to leave no one behind will be realised – births need to be registered, visits to health facilities need to be recorded, progress through school needs to be monitored …. Service delivery that reaches everyone requires good public administration which requires comprehensive, timely and sustainable data from the bottom up.

Please share your thoughts and opinions about our session and our paper with Claudia by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@StatsClaudie).