Getting the measure of the Sustainable Development Goals

Chief Statistician, Director, Statistics Directorate, OECD

World leaders have just endorsed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) comprising some 169 targets. To have a chance of reaching them, we must also meet another goal: improving our data. 

Across the whole range of international concerns, from poverty and hunger through equality and climate action to peace and justice, we need good data to know where we are starting from, whether we’re making progress and what we need to improve. Data allow governments to make evidence-based decisions, and citizens to hold governments to account. In short, good public policy requires good data.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in place between 2000 and 2015, can provide important lessons here. While they are widely perceived as a success story, and certainly mobilised increases in aid and other resources, tracking progress in the early years was hard. There were large data gaps, and not enough attention was paid at the outset to selecting indicators and making sure that reliable data would be available.

The SDGs are different: data are now recognised as central to achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and the UN Statistics Commission is already supervising work on an official set of SDG indicators. The commission should decide in March 2016 on the indicators to be used, and arrangements have also been agreed to govern follow-up and review in the years ahead.

Clearly, monitoring progress towards the SDGs will be even more challenging than it was for the MDGs. The new targets are universal––applying to all countries, and not just focused on development problems. Many of the new targets are complex and multifaceted, and they cover a much wider range of fields and sectors than the MDGs. The SDGs’ emphasis on reducing inequalities will also require data articulated in multiple dimensions, such as gender, disability and socio-economic status.

But while monitoring will be challenging, there are good reasons to be confident. There are a lot more data available today than in 2000, and technological breakthroughs and improved methods now provide more detailed and granular data––for example, about household and business behaviour. New partnerships are being set up to harness this data revolution. Moreover, the international co-operation that was forged during the MDG period has improved sharing and comparability, and boosted support and funding for the systems needed to track progress.

This progress must continue if we are to meet the data challenges posed by the SDGs. Even in this era of “big data”, no country, not even among OECD members, has all the data it needs to monitor the SDGs. New resources must be tapped to fill the gaps, and an unprecedented and sustained international effort will be needed to develop the new information required.

Our organisation is renowned for its statistics and has been at the forefront of global innovations in statistical methods, systems and dissemination for over half a century. We are a recognised authority on a vast array of economic, social, environmental and development-related statistics.

Our value added in monitoring the SDGs will be wide-ranging. On the crucial issue of the “means of implementation” of the goals, we already report on country efforts to meet international financing goals reaffirmed in the SDGs, such as the well-known UN target for official development assistance of 0.7% of each provider country’s gross national income, and the 0.15-0.20% sub-target for the least developed countries. To complement this work, we are developing new metrics, such as a measure of total official support for sustainable development (TOSSD), to give a more comprehensive view of resource flows.

For many years we have been leading the search for new statistical measures of progress that go beyond gross domestic product (GDP) by building indicators for well-being and measuring them consistently across OECD countries.

Through our world input-output tables we track the transboundary impacts of production and consumption in OECD countries on CO2 emissions and critical natural resources.

On the education front, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), already the world’s most widely used metric to measure educational outcomes, is being adapted to cater to more countries under our PISA for Development initiative (see article by Michael Ward). We have pioneered other useful tools and concepts that are now in everyday use: for instance, the polluter pays principle, so important in the battle against climate change, was forged at the OECD, as were measures in the area of science and technology, income distribution, health, labour, international investment, and regional analysis, to name just a few.

We work on methods and provide technical support too, designing the principles and approaches needed for statistical agencies to gather robust, comparable and pertinent data. The organisation’s statistical quality framework and quality review process help promote international data quality and consistency. We will be supporting OECD members’ and partners’ own reporting on SDG progress and helping them to harmonise reporting, fill gaps and improve effectiveness.

Accessibility is also key. As the renowned Hans Rosling remarked, statistics are not for the bookkeeping of the state, but should be understood and used by the people. The OECD is committed to ensure that its data are open, accessible and free of charge. We invest in our data portals to make them user-friendly and sharable, both to maximise global dissemination and to allow users to give us feedback to help us improve the quality and accessibility of our information. Clearly, building a statistical system capable of monitoring the SDGs will demand investment in capacity and skills across the entire spectrum, from conceiving and collecting data to interpreting and communicating them clearly.

For nearly two decades the OECD-hosted initiative PARIS21 (Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century), has worked alongside developing countries to help them strengthen their national statistical capabilities, while our Revenue Statistics programme has provided invaluable support in building the capacity of tax systems in several countries. Such mutually beneficial programmes capture the spirit of co-operation which the OECD represents.

The OECD has for decades been a vital contributor to the process of setting global goals. Its 1996 development co-operation strategy, Shaping the 21st Century, was a key step towards formulating the MDGs, and we have played a vital role in monitoring them over the past 15 years. We will be doing all we can now to help our member and partner countries and the whole international community to rise to the even greater measurement challenges presented by the SDGs.

Building better data for better lives is one goal we are determined to achieve.


Bumpstead, Robert and Richard Alldritt (2011), “Statistics for the people? The role of official statistics in the democratic debate”, paper delivered at the 58th World Congress of the International Statistical Institute, Dublin, 21-26 August.

Durand, Martine (2012), “Can big data deliver on its promise?” in OECD Observer No 293, Q4 November.

Durand, Martine (2012), “Progress: From compass to global positioning system” in OECD Yearbook, December.

OECD (2015), How’s Life? Measuring Well- Being, OECD Publishing.

For more on the OECD Better Life Initiative, visit


©OECD Observer No 303, September 2015

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