From Tuesday, July 9th to Thursday, July 18th, members of the United Nations (UN) met in New York City for the 2019 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development. Every year, a thematic review of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is conducted where member states can submit voluntary national reviews (VNRs) to stimulate opportunities for progress and disperse knowledge about successful interventions. The theme of this year’s event was “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” which encompassed select Goals:
- Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all;
- Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;
- Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries;
- Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts;
- Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels;
- Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
There are a total of 17 SDGs, each with its own array of targets, and each target has its own set of indicators. There are hundreds of potential indicators, which—if the data are widely and consistently collected—show a very narrow and specific measure of success. Some indicators are based on measures which may be overly reliant on self-reporting or assess government expenditures instead of outcomes. Others do not have indicators that fully address the target or are nonexistent. In order to understand how to effectively take action towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, countries must be able to identify the areas where they have made progress and, even more importantly, the ones where they have not. Clear and well-communicated data allows for targeted interventions that maximize limited resources; income is not destiny.
These concepts tend not to be included in most comprehensive measurements of quality of life. Some thematic indexes focus on topics such as peace, or human rights, but very few work to capture the broader lived experience of people. Despite infrequent measurement, broad ideas such as justice and inclusion have real ramifications. According to a report from the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, efforts at inclusion can have social and economic outcomes beyond increased diversity, which include reductions in poverty and inequality, increased economic growth, and greater mobility. In the words of Michael Green, our co-founder and CEO, speaking at the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival, “things like Inclusiveness that can seem very intangible, actually can have economically material impacts.”
The progress against the 2030 goals must be effectively measured in a way that provides actionable information for governing entities. Thus, the SDG-calibrated Social Progress Index (SPI), provides an aggregated and dimensional way to measure a country’s progress against the SDGs. The SPI and SDGs evaluate the same concepts and core ideas while using different components, targets, and indicators. However, unlike the SDG indicators, the SPI data is consistent and can be measured over time, which, when appropriately calibrated, allows it to become a tool to gauge progress towards the 2030 SDGs, with a score of 100 equivalent to attainment. To learn more about the SDG-calibrated SPI watch Michael Green’s Ted Talk entitled: The global goals we’ve made progress on—and the ones we haven’t.
One of the most notable but enigmatic goals that the 2019 HLPF covered is SDG 16. The presence of peace, inclusion, justice, and accountability can be felt acutely and can significantly improve the daily lived experience of people around the world. However, these broad yet influential concepts are hard to measure and the corresponding UN targets and indicators for SDG 16 are frequently vague, inconsistent, or unavailable.
Aspects of SDG 16 are encompassed by several different components across all three dimensions of the SDG-calibrated SPI: Personal Safety, Access to Information & Communications, Personal Rights, Personal Freedom & Choice, and Inclusiveness. All of these components are in alignment with the description and targets of SDG 16 and by using the SDG-calibrated SPI we can simultaneously see the big picture and many of the smaller details.
Let’s look at the US as an example. The US has not made progress against the SDGs since 2014 and has actually regressed since 2016. Specifically, within the components of the SDG-calibrated SPI that align with SDG 16, we can see that the US has consistently achieved the target for Personal Freedom & Choice over the past 5 years, but has stagnated below the target for Access to Information & Communications. More alarmingly, the US has seen significant declines in Inclusiveness and Personal Safety, most drastically since 2016. This data shows the specific areas where the US has struggled to meet SDG 16, and these alarming trends highlight the need for specific and immediate interventions to get on track to reach to the 2030 goals.
As seen with the US, the data from the dimension and component breakdown of the index allows countries to focus policies and resources towards their most significant challenges. Furthermore, to meet the 2030 goals on the SDG-calibrated SPI, a country must meet the standards of all three dimensions which ensures that all SDGs have been accounted for. Leaders and policymakers must take a broader approach that encompasses all of the SDGs, instead of picking and choosing à la carte, if we are to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
The UN chose 17 incredibly important but often complex and difficult-to-measure goals as part of their 2030 Sustainability Agenda. Measurement is imperative to the success of this initiative and to the billions of lives that will be influenced if all countries reach the SDGs by 2030. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, “the people of the world do not want half measures or empty promises, they are demanding transformative change that is fair and sustainable.” The 2019 HLPF indicates that many countries are still not on track to reach the 2030 goals. However, measurement tools, including the SDG-calibrated SPI, offer a way to share success stories and target particularly challenging goals. It’s time to get back on track and ensure inclusiveness and empowerment across the world.
Learn more about the Social Progress Imperative’s work with the Sustainable Development Goals here.