unctad.org | 2030 Agenda: ‘An Unprecedented Statistical Challenge’
2030 Agenda: ‘An Unprecedented Statistical Challenge’
06 December 2018

​Measurement of the Sustainable Development Goals indicators falls squarely on the statistical community – but what does this mean?



The global statistical community has been delegated the singular task of selecting and measuring the indicators that will quantify progress towards achieving the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“The SDG indicators do not simply measure the 2030 Agenda. They define it,” UNCTAD head of statistics and information, Steve MacFeely said. This is a challenge the entire statistical community must engage with, he said.

SDGs Statistical Challenge

“Many policy discussions are running far ahead of available statistics. As a consequence, the SDGs are likely to be the driving force for many statistical advances in the coming years.” Mr. MacFeely was presenting a paper at a special event hosted by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung at the United Nations in New York in November.

The paper, The 2030 Agenda: An Unprecedented Statistical Challenge, provides a critical examination of the SDG indicators from a statistical perspective.

It outlines some of the key measurement challenges and a few unanticipated consequences.

“The SDG targets are not ‘targets’ in the normal sense of the word – they are, for the most part, not clear time delimited objectives but rather general, often complex, aspirations which leave generous space for interpretation,” Mr. MacFeely said.

Summing up

From a statistical perspective the implications of Agenda 2030 for the accompanying monitoring framework are enormous.

For one, the number of goals and targets increased considerably with the new SDGs.

From the 8 goals, 21 targets and 60 indicators of the SDGs’ predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, to the 17 goals and 169 targets and 230 indicators of the SDGs, the complexity of the task and the targets has expanded.

“This will have profound implications, not only in terms of statistical concepts and methodology, but also in terms of statistical organization and the use of new data sources,” he said.

“Deciding the actual meaning and specific objectives of the 2030 Agenda was effectively delegated to the statistical community,” said Mr. MacFeely. “This means statisticians will determine whether the 2030 Agenda is a success or a failure.” However, as of yet, few SDG indicators have been published.

Although the 2030 Agenda’s goals were agreed by all UN Member States, the process of selecting the performance indicators was delegated to the global statistical community.

SDGs Statistical Challenge 

Total opportunity

It is not all about measurement challenges. There are also significant opportunities, accordingly to Mr. MacFeely.

“The 2030 Agenda may have inadvertently opened up new and unexpected opportunities to re-imagine the traditional role of official statistics.”

He said national statistics offices, for example, could broaden their mandate to include the accreditation or certification of unofficial statistics.

International organizations are also in the position to tap globalized digital data and switch from national to collaborative international production models.

The 2030 Agenda also provides a clear justification for countries to develop a national data infrastructure, Mr. MacFeely added.

Event horizon

The event was moderated by Chantal Line Carpentier of UNCTAD and discussion was provided by Ivo Havinga, Assistant Director of the United Nations Statistics Division and Sally Engle Merry, Professor of Anthropology at New York University and author of The Seductions of Quantification.

The paper demonstrates the potential new shape of future official statistics, influenced by the directives of the SDGs.


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