Are we achieving the SDGs, and is the data credible?

The timeliness and necessity of setting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be obvious to most compassionate, sentient people. Other than staunch climate deniers and isolationists, who wouldn’t want a world in which poverty is eradicated, climate change is addressed, and peaceful, inclusive societies are built by the year 2030?

Yet a casual look at the global news headlines seems to indicate that the world is moving away from—rather than toward—attainment of the SDGs. While there’s no question that global poverty rates have indeed dropped over the past three decades, there’s evidence that many of these gains—especially in the Global South—are increasingly threatened by climate change. This is because rising temperatures cause spikes in food and energy prices, which in turn lead to high rates of rural-to-urban migration into the coastal cities which are most vulnerable to future climate-related disasters.

Elsewhere on the climate-change front, what message do countries in the Global South receive when a wealthy country like the United States threatens to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords (even as its own territory—Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas—is ravaged by climate-induced extreme weather events)?

And when it comes to building peaceful inclusive societies, it’s difficult not to look at conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen and not feel despair.

Not even the most ardent supporters of the SDGs believe that all the 27 SDGs could be attained by 2030. But a look at the UN’s own progress assessment is worrying, to say the least. A July 2017 news release summarizing a major assessment report notes dryly that “Pace of progress must accelerate to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

A close read of the press release provides cause for concern. We are told that “while progress has been made over the past decade across all areas of development, the pace of progress has been insufficient and advancements have been uneven to fully meet the implementation of the SDGs.”

This is not necessarily news, as previous assessments have similarly warned that more needs to be done, and fast. But the penultimate paragraph of the press release revealed more about the challenge of SDG attainment than the authors perhaps intended: “Effectively tracking progress on the SDGs requires accessible, reliable, timely and disaggregated data at all levels, which poses a major challenge to national and international statistical systems. While data availability and quality have steadily improved over the years, statistical capacity still needs strengthening worldwide.”

In other words, the architects of the SDGs seem to be acknowledging that the data with which they produce their progress reports derives from inadequate systems that are not yet capable of delivering “accessible, reliable, timely and disaggregated” data. It’s not a surprise that many countries, especially in the Global South, lack the infrastructure and human capacity to generate meaningful data. (That’s one of the reasons why development is needed in the first place). But building the infrastructure and developing the human capacity to gather credible data is likely to take many, many years. Which in turn begs the question of whether we are using the correct metrics at the correct time to measure what are, at best, difficult-to-quantity and highly subjective outcomes.

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