Indicators, Indivisibility and the Conceptual Complexity of the SDGs

Author: Alvin K. Leong


The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, relies on an emerging global indicator framework for the measurement of progress or lack thereof.  This global indicator framework is being developed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) and currently includes over 200 agreed indicators.

The general concept of a global indicator framework raises a number of inherent issues.  One is how well the normative content of each target can be “translated” into the metric of a corresponding indicator.  Another issue is whether, in certain cases, qualitative information may be as or more meaningful than quantitative measures.  A third point is the difficulty of understanding how different targets/indicators are interlinked or interact (both positively and negatively) with each other in the real world.  

Putting aside these conceptual issues for the moment, the current status of the global indicator framework is nevertheless very concerning. The global indicators are classified into three tiers:  Tier I, Tier II and Tier III.  Tier I are indicators for which methodology is established and data is generally available, Tier II are indicators for which methodology is established but data is not generally available, and Tier III are indicators for which methodology is not established and requires further work.  

Currently, at the aggregate level, the number of Tier II and Tier III indicators significantly outnumber the number of Tier I indicators.  At the individual SDG level, a robust indicator set should contain a high proportion of Tier I indicators and a low proportion of Tier III indicators.  However, currently, many indicator sets are weak and contain low proportions of Tier I indicators while containing high proportions of Tier III indicators.  Indeed, only a fraction of SDGs have indicator sets that contain more than 50% classified as Tier I.  Clearly, much more work needs to be done.

The current fragmented state of the global indicator framework is not the only challenge.  Many countries, especially the poorer developing countries, will face capacity problems in adopting and adapting these indicators into their national frameworks and in collecting, disaggregating and analyzing data.  Fundamentally, all countries, both developed and developing, will need to make policy choices and decisions on the adoption and adaptation of these global indicators into their national frameworks, and these policy choices and decisions will naturally reflect their national realities and priorities, as well as technical and operational considerations.  

Thus, the reality that governments and civil society may have to face in the near future is the emerging fragmentation of the agenda – the specific targets and indicators – at the national and possibly regional levels, not necessarily as a matter of stated policy but as a de facto matter.  Notably, before the introduction of “indivisibility” (a concept found in international human rights doctrine) into the SDGs , Colombia and Guatemala had proposed the idea of a global “dashboard” for the SDGs, as a modality for reflecting differences in circumstances and priorities of countries across the development spectrum.  The “dashboard” proposal was ultimately not developed into a formal modality.  However, the deep conceptual challenge of harmonizing “indivisibility” with national realities, priorities and ownership is still relevant and has never been adequately addressed.

The clock is ticking towards 2030.  A pivotal challenge in the next few years is to figure out how to preserve and realize the “integrated” character of the SDGs across regions and countries.  The 2030 Agenda offers the potentiality of the radical transformation of human systems through the “integration” of the three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – utilizing the (imperfect) frame of goals, targets and indicators.  The international community and stakeholders must do their best not to leave this transformative ambition behind


DISCLAIMER. The views expressed in this blog are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Together 2030 Initiative and its members.


Alvin K. Leong (LLM, JD), an energy and environmental attorney and sustainable development policy advisor.



Together 2030 ( is a civil society initiative that promotes national implementation and tracks progress of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Initiative, set up in December 2015, seeks to generate knowledge and project voices from civil society and stakeholders around the world on the challenges and opportunities for the 2030 Agenda. Together 2030 brings together civil society and non-governmental actors to discuss the way to formulate and implement roadmaps at national level and hold governments to account at all levels.As of November 2017, 570 organizations have joined Together 2030 from more than 100 countries. 72% of which are based in the Global South.


2 thoughts on “Indicators, Indivisibility and the Conceptual Complexity of the SDGs

  1. The observation is accurate. When it comes to developing countries, it needs a totally different approach. An approach that engages people to be part of the solution through multi fold increase in productivity per per across the board in every country. This is not happening now and existing ‘window dressing’ measurements like GDP growth have meant nothing- see UH HDR.
    We have a holistic approach documented in a book entitled Engineered Sustainable Development. Check it out.


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