Radboud Centrum Sociale Wetenschappen

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How reliable and valid are the SDG Progress Reports?

In 2015, all United Nation members states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), committing to end poverty, promote human rights and ensure that all people live in peace and equality in a sustainable environment by 2030 (UNDP, 2019). Today, five years after the goals were adopted, the SDGs are well known, but shortcomings on data make it hard to track their progress. Dang and Serajuddin (2020) list the most common pitfalls in dealing with SDG indicators.

Firstly, the 232 SDG indicators present overlapping entities, where some even present the exact same wording. Secondly, several goals are contradictory and clear evaluation guidelines are lacking. One of the most common examples is that SDG8 focuses on economic growth, which contradicts with many of the other goals, most notably with SDG13, on climate action. One could question how economic growth can be reconciled with environmental sustainability: global increase in production and consumption supports economic growth, but it negatively affects natural ecosystems and wildlife (Menton et al., 2020). Thirdly, it is not clear how data is to be interpreted. For example, should all indicators be weighted equally, or should some indicators be considered as more important? It can be argued that applying the same weight is interchangeable with using no weight at all (Dang & Serajuddin, 2020). Additionally, there must be more clarity on the time span considered and whether the trend of the level of achievement is more important: yearly achievements on one indicator cannot be compared with 5-yearly achievements on the other. Finally, the most challenging problem of all is the availability of data, which is lacking for 68 per cent of the SDG indicators (Campbel, 2019). It is remarkable that the 2020 SDG progress reports show that progress has been made on several SDGs, while it is in fact impossible to properly track progress when most of the fundamental data is lacking.

It turns out that measuring the development goals is a complex matter, with varying degrees of success in their implementation and tracking progress. The varying weights and contradictory indicators vary in their ability to show steady progress. Therefore, it is important to set clear guidelines on how to interpret the progress of the SDGs. More transparency on how data is measured is key and allows continuous review progress, which is vital for consistent and successful implementation of the SDGs.

This blog was written by Luca Saccani & Ieke van Lammeren, on the lecture on 'Setting and tracking objectives for social change: Does the SDG framework hold us back' by Luuk van Kempen.