Indicators for the Rich

SONY DSCBy Claudia Schwegmann, Project lead of www.2030-watch.de, Open Knowledge Foundation Germany, Twitter: @2030WatchDe and @OpenAidGermany

Do the indicators proposed by the IAEG-SDG capture the specific responsibility of high-income countries?

One of the big wins of the 2030-Agenda is its global character. In contrast to the Millennium Development Goals the 2030-Agenda explicitly includes the responsibility of high-income countries to address challenges in their societies and to meet their responsibility at international level. This result was achieved in a long and arduous negotiation over the last 2 years. So far so good. But the negotiations are not yet over. At the moment the indicators are defined at international level by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators (IEAG-SDG). What gets measured, gets done – so indicators are important.

Officially, the process of indicator development was sometimes characterized as a merely technical exercise that could be left to the statisticians. However, this characterization is far from correct. Instead the development of the indicators is highly political and it reopens many of the conflicts during the negotiation of the 2030-Agenda. An analysis of the current proposal of the IAEG-SDG illustrates, that the level of ambition expressed in the 2030-Agenda is lowered considerably in the indicators. This is particularly true for the responsibility of rich countries.

At the moment there are 229 indicators proposed by the IAEG-SDG. 149 of these indicators are already decided and the rest still needs further discussion. Only a fraction of these indicators truely reflect the specific responsibility of high-income countries. To start with, not all targets apply to high-income countries. For example SDG 6.1. on universal access to safe and affordable drinking water is already achieved in many European countries. Indicators for such targets cannot be applied to these countries.

There is a second category of indicators that do not measure progress at national level at all. Instead they assess the international level. For example the indicator proposed for SDG 12.1. on the implementation the 10-year framework on sustainable consumption and production is “Number of countries with SCP National Actions Plans or SCP mainstreamed as a priority or target into national policies”.  It may be useful to collect such aggregate data but this indicator does not allow to hold individual countries to account.

A big problem with the IAEG-SDG indicators is, that they are not enough. This may sound ridiculous given that there are already 229 indicators proposed. But the whole 2030-Agenda is very complex and it does not help to reduce this complexity by simply dropping half of the issues addressed. For example target 16.4. covers four issues: illicit financial flows, arms flows, recovery or stolen assets and combatting organized crime. Each of these four topics would merit several indicators to assess progress at national or international level. What is proposed by IAEG-SDG is one indicator on illicit financial flows and one indicator relating to arms flows. At indicator level organised crime and asset recovery have disappeared from the agenda. For SDG 6.3. the harmful release of chemicals and hazardous waste is skipped at the indicator level. In SDG 7.1. the affordability of electricity access is not reflected in the proposed indicators. Unfortunately there are too many examples of indicators that are not comprehensive and fail to do justice to the target agreed.

A second serious problem with the IAEG indicators relates directly to the responsibility of the high-income countries. For many targets an indicator is chosen, that fails to address the responsibility of rich countries. A very good example is the target 3.3. on combatting tropical diseases. The indicators chosen are outcome indicators like number of fatal malaria cases per 1000 inhabitants. This indicator suggests, that the problem is exclusively a problem of developing countries. High-income countries have no responsibility with regards to tropical diseases except maybe to provide more ODA and invest more in research. But if more medical research is undertaken by companies in high-income countries, the likely outcome is medicines with patent rights held by Northern companies. An important role of high income countries is to review its patent rights and its research policies to ensure that people in developing countries can access medicines at an affordable price. We could try and monitor progress in health issues with the indicator proposed by IAEG-SDG without the controversial field of patent rights ever being touched upon. If the secretary general is serious about his repeated warning that business as usual is no option, we also need indicators that go beyond business as usual.

Another example is SDG 8.10 on the access to financial services. For the vast majority of people in Europe this target is already achieved and the indicator “number of bank branches or ATMs per 100.000 adults” is not useful. However, there are certainly marginalised groups like newly arrived migrants in Germany and other European countries that do not have access to financial services. No one should be left behind, so appropriate indicators should also capture these groups. With the current indicator, they remain invisible.

Many indicators proposed by IAEG-SDG suffer from this bias of looking at outcome in developing countries while ignoring the responsibility of high-income countries.

For SDG 2 indicators for small scale agriculture are proposed but no indicators covering harmful investments related to land grabbing. The proposed indicator for SDG 8.8. is to count the number of countries that have ratified ILO conventions on labour rights. The responsibility of companies to ensure the respect of labour rights in investments abroad is not touched upon. Likewise, the potential threat of bilateral investment treatise to undermine labour rights is not reflected in the indicators. SDG 10 calls for equality in countries and among countries. However, the only indicator that relates to the financial inequality between countries is whether or not a country implements the Tobin tax. This indicator is still very controversial and some OECD countries have voiced strong reservations against this indicator. If this indicator is not accepted the whole 2030-Agenda does not have a single indicator relating to the financial inequality among countries. The unfair share of tax revenues caused by bilateral tax treaties or the encouragement of illicit financial flows through financial secrecy in countries like the Netherlands, the UK or Germany are not addressed.

NGOs, mobilized by the CSO Indicators Task Force have written an open letter to the Chair of the United Statistics Commission and to the co-chair of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG Indicators to express their dissatisfaction with the process of the indicator development and with the lack of consideration of regional differences in the indicators. The detailed analysis of the indicators from the perspective of high-income countries corroborates this complaint.

The selection of indicators is not technical, it is highly political. Important progress on the responsibility of high-income countries made in the 2030-Agenda negotiations risk being lost now to a rushed and far less inclusive indicator process. Civil society organisations should resist this process both at international and at national level and reopen the discussion on appropriate indicators.

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