Six months after giving birth to a cluster of nebulous Sustainable Development Goals that aim to dramatically change the economic, social and environmental course of the planet, the United Nations is working on a drastic renovation of global data gathering to measure progress against its sweeping international agenda.
The result that emerged late last week from the U.N. Statistical Commission — an obscure body of national experts that calls itself the “apex entity of the international statistics system” — is a document as sprawling, undefined and ambitious as the sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, themselves — which lay out 17 goals and 169 sometimes overlapping targets to transform global society.
In attempting to cover at least some of that ground, the so-called “draft global indicators framework” likely will add huge new volumes of information that governments collect as they measure progress toward what amounts to a global socialist or progressive agenda.
To the extent that the indicators are adopted or incorporated by national governments, such as that of the U.S., they will also provide a powerful reorientation of public debate as they filter into academic and policy discussions.
In all, the draft framework outlines 230 statistical indicators to measure progress toward the SDGs, including such familiar ones as per-capital Gross Domestic Product and the proportion of populations living below national and international poverty lines.
According to the U.N. General Assembly resolution that called for their creation, the new SDG indicators are supposed to be “simple but robust.” Among the relatively novel measurements the draft framework proposes to develop:
■ The “proportion of government recurrent and capital spending going to sectors that disproportionately benefit women, poor and vulnerable groups”
■ The “extent to which global citizenship education and education for sustainable development . . . are mainstreamed at all levels in national education politics, curricula, teacher education and student assessment”
■ The “number of countries that have implemented well-managed migration policies”
■ The “average income of small-scale food producers, by sex and indigenous status”
■ The “proportion of persons victim of physical or sexual harassment, by sex, age, disability status and place of occurrence, in the previous 12 months”
■ The “mortality rate attributed to unintentional poisoning”
■ The “proportion of national Exclusive Economic Zones [200-mile ocean limits] managed using ecosystem-based approaches”
■ The “number of plant and animal genetic resources for food and agriculture secured in either medium or long-term conservation facilities”
■ “Progress by countries in the degree of implementation of international instruments aiming to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”
The indicators endorsed in the framework are “unprecedent in their scale and nuance,” according to John Pullinger, National Statistician of Britain, and immediate past chair of an expert group of national statistical agencies that pulled together the indicators for the Statistical Commission.
(The U.S. was not an expert group member, but participated in a grouping known as the Friends of the Chair of the Statistical Commission that provided guidance for the effort.)
Among other things, the SDG indicator quest included a “really strong push,” in Pullinger’s phrase, for “disaggregation,” which has been defined by the U.N. as a breakdown of statistics by “income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographical location, or other characteristics.”
Just how that information will be collected, and how enlightening it will prove to be, remains to be seen, as the process to refine and obtain the data, Pullinger indicated, is likely to stretch on as long as the SDG agenda itself, through 2030.
The indicators endorsed in the framework are “unprecedent in their scale and nuance.”
– John Pullinger, National Statistician of Britain
Adding to the complexity, the data search will depend on national governments of all stripes — democratic and dictatorial, developed and developing — to come up with their own versions of the facts.
The eyebrow-raising and sometimes improbable diversity of the proposed data-gathering effort is a reflection of the “transformational” SDGs themselves, which aim to touch on most areas of human existence and impact.
They also reflect another aspect of the SDGs — an uncoordinated degree of ambition that some of the world’s top scientific bodies found at times impractical, redundant and unmeasurable. Those scientific groups, however, were to a considerable degree ignored.
The same can now be said about the bid to measure their progress, according to Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Some of the huge array of indicators are “useful and practical,” he observes, but many “are seriously flawed.”
Like the U.N. itself, many are focused, he says, on “inputs like the level of government spending or the volume of development assistance devoted to a particular issue, rather than the results from those expenditures.”
Others could best be described in Schaefer’s phrase as “transparently political objectives,” including those based on ratification of U.N.-generated treaties, like the Law of the Sea and an international biodiversity convention, both of which the U.S., for example, has not ratified.
Still others, he said, “use imprecise or subjective terms that invite bias or data manipulation.”
Overall, Schaefer was concerned that the immense data collection effort involved on a global scale — much of it unprecedented — “will consume significant resources and will likely outstrip the capacity of less developed countries.
“We have got what we have got,” British National Statistician Pullen told Fox News — meaning, among other things, that the “technical task is to find a set of indicators that speak to the targets.”
“We have to understand that there are a lot more things going on than just statistics.”
Pullinger agreed that “the data needs are vast” for the indicators, but added that “this is just the current case of a fact of life in the world of measurement. As scientists, we are working to understand the world better.”
Some targets, Pullinger said, “are more measurable than others,” meaning that “we need to keep refining them, and consulting. This is normal for the way we work.”
Indeed, as part of the method involved in further refining the data-gathering process, the expert group and the Statistical Commission divided the indicators into three “tiers.”
These depended on whether the data required was “already widely available;” whether a method of determining the data existed but the data “are not easily available;” and where “an internationally agreed methodology has not yet been developed.”
Work on the first two tiers of data is expected to continue for the next full year, while 12 months from now the experts group is expected to “provide a work plan for further development of Tier III indicators” — and to fill in other “data gaps” as they arise.
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