The well-worn adage, “what gets measured gets done,” understandably comes to mind when we consider the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The 2030 Agenda calls for an extensive set of global indicators in its outcome document (Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, para. 75) that would be “simple yet robust, address all SDGs and targets including for means of implementation.” The framework, the resolution notes, is part of the “effort to leave no one behind,” and requires that there be “timely, reliable, and disaggregated data to support the implementation of the ambitious 2030 Agenda.”


The UN Statistical Commission has the primary responsibility for metrics in the UN. The Commission consists of 24 member countries of the United Nations elected by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on the basis of an equitable geographical distribution across the UN’s regional blocs.  

But the effort of creating an architecture for measurement of progress on the SDG Goals and targets has been driven by the High-level Group for Partnership, Coordination and Capacity-Building for statistics for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (HLG), which was created by the Statistical Commission in March 2015 and is composed of Member States and including regional and international agencies as observers.  This group has driven the effort and supported the work, but the real nitty gritty aspects have been carried out by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators, which presented a series of proposals to the UN Statistical Commission and wider stakeholder input, including multilateral and UN agencies, for final endorsement by March 2016.

The indicator framework agreed to was generated based on availability of existing data both globally and at national level, as well as the quality of that data and its relevance to specific targets.  This led to the categorization of 231 indicators into 3 tiers, to be refined in coming years, as described in the IAE-SDGs Report to the Statistical Commission:

  • Tier 1 indicators (81) have an existing established methodology and data that are already widely available.

  • Tier 2 indicators (57) have an existing established methodology, however, data are not easily available.

  • Tier 3 indicators (88) do not yet have an internationally agreed methodology.

More information about the indicators, data, and the follow-up and review process can be found here:


In November 2018, the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) will hold its eighth meeting in Stockholm. The objectives of the eighth meeting are as follows:

  • Review the tier classification

  • Discuss the implementation plan for data flows and case studies on data flows for SDGs

  • Review Tier III work plans and updates

  • Review timeline and process for 2020 comprehensive review and additional indicators

  • Discuss progress made on the work stream on data disaggregation

  • Share experiences on implementing monitoring of the SDGs

There are deep capacity challenges for many countries in measuring progress on the proposed SDGs. Specifically, the UN Statistical Commission survey on proposed indicators was responded to by only 70 countries.  Of the 304 tested indicators, fewer than 30 percent are clear of either technical or political complications.  In addition, while there are wide calls for disaggregated data to make sure no one is left behind, it is not clear that the disaggregated data will be available beyond age and gender for more than only 20 of the proposed indicators.  As noted above, the Tier 2 and Tier 3 indicators are those that most nations are least prepared to report on, and/or for which there are not well-established methodologies.

In light of these challenges, there have been calls for a "data revolution" to rapidly and exponentially upgrade data capacity all over the world.  The first global data conference was held in Cartagena, Colombia in April 2015 to begin exploring how to make the data revolution a reality. One analysis, prepared by SDSN, a broad network of academics, estimates that international development-eligible countries will need to spend $1 billion a year to upgrade their statistical systems and carry out regular data collection for the SDGs. This implies that donors must maintain current contributions to statistics (approximately US$300 million/year) and to leverage US$100-200 million more in Official Development Assistance (ODA) to support country efforts. Recipient countries in turn must commit to upgrading their efforts by mobilizing domestic resources to fulfill national strategies for upgrading statistics capabilities.  

Speaking of donors, to more properly track what resources (including external flows, like ODA) are being used and how they are being applied in different countries, there needs to be better compatibility between the OECD's Development Assistance Committee (DAC)'s Credit Reporting System (CRS) - which has its own sector classification system - and the way domestic resource flows are tracked, which are classified generally with the UN Classifications of the Functions of Government (COFOG).  As the "Joined-Up Data Standards Initiative" explains,

There is no easily compatible mapping between the SDGs and either the CRS or COFOG classifications. Indicators dealing with social protection are a case in point: there is no equivalent sector in the CRS, yet the subject is at the heart of four SDGs.

Acknowledging the need for increased data capacity, many initiatives have been established to harness the expertise of government, business and civil society for improved timely and disaggregated data. The following are just the most visible of a large array of initiatives established in the last year to help monitor progress on the SDGs and improve the capacity of governments and other stakeholders to do so going forward:

  • Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Datathe open, multi-stakeholder network works to harness the data revolution for sustainable development. With over 150 partners, the Global Partnership seeks to galvanize political commitment, align strategic priorities, foster collaboration, spur innovation and build trust. 

  • Partnerships for SDGs Online PlatformThe platform, managed by UN-DESA and initially developed in response to a mandate set out by the Rio+20 Conference, has been improved to respond to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in order to function as a tool to inform all stakeholders on initiatives carried out by multi-stakeholder partnerships in support of the SDGs, and for linking progress of those initiatives to various follow-up mechanisms of the 2030 Agenda, in particular the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

  • World Bank SDG tracker:  An interactive tool that allows the user to track indicative variables for each of the 17 SDG targets in a data dashboard.

  • SDG Index & dashboards: An online country-level data set in sync with many of the UN Statistical Commission's 231 SDG indicators and measuring performance from a 2015 baseline on a 0 (worst) to 100 (best) scale.

  • Joined-Up Data Standards Initiative: Development Initiatives and Publish What You Fund have teamed up to enable existing and future data standards to join up. "Joining up" data standards helps turn data into useful information for decision-making and accountability.

  • Partnership Data for the SDGs Initiativethe initiative, developed by UN-DESA and the UN Global Compact, seeks to bring together a range of stakeholders committed to supporting the Sustainable Development Goals in an open and transparent manner by improving the transparency and streamlining information of the work being carried out by multi-stakeholder partnerships and voluntary initiatives in their support of the SDGs. 

  • Multi-Stakeholder Partnership for Enhancing Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development: The initiative aims to provide a forum for exchange of knowledge and expertise among governments, international organizations, civil society, think-tanks, the private sector, and other stakeholders on the policy implications of SDG implementation. It helps governments and stakeholders to strengthen their capacities for analyzing policy coherence challenges, and adapting institutional mechanisms, policy-making processes, and policy coherence monitoring and reporting systems to the needs and visions of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs.

Measuring the impact of policies, and ultimately achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, requires not only the efforts of all sectors of society, but also a data-revolution. The private sector has the expertise, technology, and finances to partner with governments to meet these demands.

The importance of the business community is recognized at a high-level in the 2030 Agenda, as it is understood that there can be no data revolution without the private sector; however, models are not in place to properly utilize their experiences. The business community, if effectively engaged, can be an invaluable asset in strengthening data and providing timely analysis through capacity-building for developing countries and their private sectors, and helping to institutionalize corporate reporting as a means of monitoring, review and verification. Additionally, consultation with the business community on SDG indicators, data needs, and follow-up can build a more complete picture of collective progress on the 2030 Agenda.

Aside from the official work at the UN, several other initiatives are seeking to align corporate reporting with the emergent UN SDG indicator framework:

  • SDG Compass - The UN Global Compact, Global Reporting Initiative and World Business Council for Sustainable Development have developed a searchable and sortable platform for understanding how to implement the SDGs which will look at how GRI reporting and other corporate reporting intersect with the SDG indicators.  The platform also includes resources, such an SDG Guide for Business Action.

  • KPMG/Global Compact Industry Matrix - To convert the interest stimulated by the SDGs into strategic industry activities, the UN Global Compact and KPMG are partnering on the SDG Industry Matrix project to showcase brief industry-specific examples and ideas for corporate action related to each upcoming SDG. Presented in a series of publications, each matrix will highlight bold pursuits and decisions made by diverse companies for each SDG. These SDG Industry Matrices are intended to inspire greater business pursuit of opportunities which create value for society, as well as for shareholders.

Looking forward: The Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority of United Arab Emirates will host the United Nations World Data Forum from October 22nd – 24th 2018 in Dubai, UAE. The Forum will bring together public and private measurements experts, statistical producers, information system specialists, and users as well as all other key stakeholders to discuss data for sustainable development. Another meeting in London in September focused on an equally important aspect of measurement of the 2030 Agenda: counting the money, i.e., refining the OECD’s proposed Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (TOSSD) measure of official and other resource flows directed towards sustainable development.