Measuring progress is vital for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the brighter future that the world aspires to by 2030. While the concrete sub-targets and the indicator framework of the SDGs are a big step forward, challenges remain which highlight the important role of civil society in voluntary national reporting.

The first challenge is that national reporting is voluntary. Only 44 countries are due to submit Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at HLPF 2017 and signatory countries are only expected to report twice during the 15 year lifespan of the Goals. This raises the question of how to track, and hold accountable, countries who are not participating in each year’s HLPF. The current fall back is for the UN to report on these countries using available national data and the existing global indicator framework.

A more promising alternative is for civil society to step up and provide national reporting for those countries unwilling or unable to do so.

The Korea SDGs Network has already demonstrated this potential through a civil society collaboration that has developed and launched the “Korean Civil Society Report for 2017 HLPF on Sustainable Development.” With the government of South Korea choosing not to report at HLPF 2017, the “Korea Civil Society Report” provides statistical data on the majority of Goals under review as well as a civil society analysis of progress toward the Goals, including suggestions for improving national SDG indicators.

A second challenge to monitoring progress toward the SDGs is that national governments are applying the SDG indicator framework in different ways. The original intent was that each country would adapt the UN’s global framework to their national context. Countries such as Canada and the United States, however, have decided to report domestically using only the global indicator framework as it is currently structured. As a result, Canada’s measurement of progress toward good health and well-being (SDG 3) will include reporting on the number of deaths caused by tropical diseases, while reporting on gender equality (SDG 5) will include the number of women who own mobile phones. Such measures are clearly inadequate for understanding Canada’s progress toward the Goals and require civil society advocacy for and provision of appropriate data for domestic reporting. The British Columbia Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC) is currently developing its own civil society national report for Canada that combines statistical reporting on the global indicator framework with interviews and analysis from civil society experts. These experts provide a domestic perspective on how Canada is doing in relation to the SDGs as well as highlighting nationally relevant issues and indicators that are not captured in the global framework. The unique insights contained in BCCIC’s report, and the “Korea Civil Society Report”, highlight the value of a civil society analysis irrelevant of whether governments do or do not produce VNRs, as such civil society “shadow reporting” can provide a balanced view on SDG progress to complement official reporting.

While nationally relevant reporting is essential, the SDG focus on ‘leaving no one behind,’ requires national reporting to be bolstered by sub-national indicators. Providing sub-national data allows governments to understand which communities and regions are not benefiting from a country’s overall progress and where national resources need to be focused. Sub-national disaggregated data is critical when it comes to identifying key actions or target audiences regarding SDG implementation. Potable water in Canada, for example, is decidedly less available among Canadian First Nations and northern populations than the population at large. 

While countries such as Poland and Switzerland have developed sub-national indicators, many countries have yet to do so and there is a clear opportunity for civil society to close this gap while advocating for greater investment and effort. Indeed, civil society has a clear advantage in sub-national reporting as the majority of civil society organisations are focused on the community scale and can provide unique insights that complement and extend the reach of national statistical departments. The Community Foundations of Canada is an example of a civil society network that has already developed a community level monitoring and evaluation system in the form of their ‘Vital Signs’ reporting which has been used in 85 communities across Canada and around the world. Community Foundations is currently exploring how their Vital Signs indicators map onto the SDGs. In a country the size of Canada, this sub-national data will prove vital in revealing regional disparities and focusing national efforts toward achieving the SDGs.

“…the majority of civil society organisations are focused on the community scale and can provide unique insights that complement and extend the reach of national statistical departments.”

The voluntary nature of HLPF reporting, along with diverse national approaches to applying the SDG indicator framework, present numerous challenges to measuring our progress toward the Goals. At the same time, these challenges present opportunities for civil society leadership in the generation of appropriate national reporting, as well as in advocacy for improved national and sub-national data collection. At this stage of the SDG journey, the role of civil society is vital for developing our collective capacity to measure and achieve progress toward the Goals and the better future that they envision.

Categories: Education