SDGs and the dangers of data

Amid the fanfare of hope surrounding this weekend’s adoption of a 17-point blueprint to end world poverty, there are murmurs of caution not to let the benchmarks obscure the real priorities ahead.

Some 150 world leaders have gathered in New York to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals, described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “the People’s Agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind.” 

But what will happen once the swirl of brochures with their brightly-coloured targets and graphs disappear into the briefcases of the departing power suits, and once Beyoncé has belted out her rousing numbers? Will the rush of energy translate into the kind of sustained action needed to stop migrants fleeing across the sea or save women in Sierra Leone dying in childbirth? 

Most would agree that setting goals to end poverty and widely promoting them to galvanise action is laudable. But some critics see the 17 SDGs and their dizzying total of 169 targets as a product of the current obsession with metrics, rather than of a determination to actually get stuff done. 

There is a genuine risk that the SDGs become all about the indicators, rather than about the action towards realising the larger vision

And while the SDG machinery will keep a burgeoning army of UN bureaucrats, scientists and statisticians in employment for many years to come, will it address the power imbalances between rich and poor nations and between rich and poor people? Some argue that not only will it fail to do this, but that it could actually perpetuate these imbalances.

“Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) needs to become more aware of the danger of becoming so fetishised, technical and obscure that it doesn't emphasise the doing part,” said Dugan Fraser, a South African specialist in M&E and programme strategy. 

“It must make sure it isn’t more about academics doing randomised trials rather than addressing the real problems, like the fact that the fieldworker in Burundi responsible for implementation just doesn’t have petrol to get to the site.” 

Such academics, with their “complicated measuring systems… need to take care they are not diverting resources from solutions on the ground that have already been shown to work,” he said.

These concerns are based on precedent. According to a United Nations Development Programme assessment, the SDGs’ precursors, the eight Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, “lent themselves to a ‘drive for numbers’ at the expense of quality and to an excessive preoccupation with readily measurable outcomes at the expense of areas that are harder to measure.”

For example, successes in getting more children in primary school were sometimes accompanied by a drop in the quality of education. Similarly, a fixation on combatting certain diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria led to a decline in “systemic support” for health systems, leaving them more vulnerable in the face of sudden, extreme threats such as Ebola. 

See: The hurdles awaiting the new SDGs

Others, such as Asa Persson and Mans Nilsson from the Stockholm Environment Institute, warn that a preoccupation with goals and outcomes distracts from the messy and nuanced realities on the ground that vary from one country to the next and defy neat paradigms. 

Unless they are finessed into country-specific targets, the SDGs “risk becoming just another bit of remote UN agenda,” they wrote on Post2015.org, a development blog.

Yes, setting harmonised global targets means that progress can be measured and compared, but fitting these targets into the legal, social and political realities of each country can be a contradictory pursuit, they say. 

“There is a genuine risk that the SDGs become all about the indicators, rather than about the action towards realising the larger vision,” wrote Persson and Nilsson.

With so many goals and targets, the danger of number-crunching burnout with the SDGs looms large, before they have even left the launch pad. 

“Indeed, the SDGs are shaping up as markedly more complex than the MDGs. They will require a quantum leap in the capacity of developing nations and their development partners to collaborate in joint programmes and measure progress,” Indran Naidoo, director of the UNDP’s Independent Evaluation Office, said in the agency’s assessment.

Those warning about data-overload point to a contradiction: where, they ask, is the hard evidence to justify this aspect of the SDGs: the use of celebrities in their promotional campaign? 

A catchphrase on the campaign website is: “Join these people, make the goals famous.” A string of famous people, including the band One Direction, actress Kate Winslet and chef Jamie Oliver, are doing their bit to promote the goals. 

In the first quantitative study on the subject, researcher Dan Brockington could not find any persuasive proof that such celebrity endorsement of good causes actually furthers their aims.  

“There should be more evidence showing that when a movie star endorses a goal it achieves results,” said Fraser. “(The UN) should be applying the same kind of rigor to these interventions as was applied to the MDGs and will be expected of the SDGs.”

What Brockington’s study did show is that powerful people like to be around celebrities. There will be plenty of opportunity for the powerful and the famous to rub shoulders at the SDG summit this weekend. 

pg/am/ag