Sustainable Development Indicators: The Last Missing Piece of the 2030 Agenda

The 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was a major milestone for United Nations (UN) Member States seeking to jumpstart efforts to improve people’s lives and maintain a healthy planet. The “last missing piece” to complete the architecture of the 2030 sustainable development agenda according to Stefan Schweinfest, director of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division, is to adopt a comprehensive framework of progress indicators to guide countries’ efforts to reach the Goals by 2030.1

Launched in September 2015 and in effect as of January 2016, the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets that support them build on the progress of the previous Millennium Development Goals that focused on social issues like poverty and health (with eight goals and 21 targets). The SDGs go further in some respects to include economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development (see website).

The United Nations Statistical Commission and the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) have developed the indicator framework that will be used to measure progress toward the global goals and serve as the primary monitoring mechanism for identifying both achievements and gaps. From March 8-11, at the 47th Session of the UN Statistical Commission, experts will review and adopt the proposed framework and submit it to the UN Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly for adoption, likely in June. The remaining work will be done at country level, where governments will develop their own national indicators based on country context and capacity for collecting data.

Indicators will help countries prioritize what they need to do to meet the goals and will allow them to monitor their progress, but the indicators are only as good as the data to track them. According to a number of experts, many countries are not equipped to do so. In the health sector, for example, the World Health Organization has been working to develop country-level capacity in gathering health statistics, but progress has been slow because national governments may not have seen vital statistics systems as a priority or because donor agencies have not seen such systems as an integral part of the development infrastructure.2 All this is changing, but will it happen quickly enough to supply data for the 2030 targets of the SDGs?

What To Expect

The development of the SDG indicator framework has been a consultative process with numerous meetings, conferences, and brainstorming sessions. In December, when the preliminary framework was submitted, it included a larger number of indicators (229), since some were still in review: 149 “green” and 89 “gray.” The green indicators were those where there was general agreement, and the gray were indicators that require further discussion and refinement.3 With two weeks before adoption of the framework by the UN Statistical Commission, a final list of indicators has been proposed.

Global indicators will form the core, but countries will develop indicators at regional, national, and subnational levels to complement the core indicators. Some thematic indicators are also being developed.

The IAEG-SDGs is encouraging and providing guidance for data to be disaggregated, where possible, by sex, age, residence (urban vs. rural), and other relevant characteristics, in order to ensure that the indicators cover vulnerable populations and other issues called for in the SDG targets. Reporting will be annual and data will be collected by national statistical agencies. In the fall of 2016, a UN World Forum on Sustainable Development Data will be held.

At a follow up meeting in Mexico City from March 30-April 1, the IAEG-SDGs will take the first step in implementation of the framework as they classify all the indicators into three tiers:

  • Tier I: An established methodology exists and data are widely available.
  • Tier II: A methodology has been established but data are not easily available.
  • Tier III: An international agreed methodology has not yet been developed.

What the World Needs Now Is Data

In a Lancet interview, Amina Mohamed, the special adviser to the UN secretary-general on Post-2015 Development Planning, admits that she is most worried about the monitoring, and that without good baseline data, monitoring progress is nearly impossible. According to her, even the most basic data is still challenging in some 100 countries that don’t have a dependable vital statistics system.4 For example, the World Bank estimates that around the world almost 230 million children under age 5 are not registered.5 Moreover, according to a Brookings Institution gap analysis of financing for data needs, a number of countries have fallen behind on the universal standard of 10-year population census-taking.6

Countries like India present a different challenge. The data collection systems exist, but the scale is vast given the country’s population. Some experts feel that the success of the SDG goals depends in large part on their success in India, where almost 18 percent of the world’s population lives.7 India has already expressed reservations about its ability to monitor the indicators, noting the country has already been struggling to monitor 25 core indicators for India’s five-year planning cycles.8 In a country of 1.3 billion people, effectively collecting data presents a huge burden.

Take the example of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), collectively the leading causes of death as well as the biggest burden of disease in India. For SDG 3 on health, Target 3.4 is: By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being. For this target, the proposed indicators are:

  • Probability of dying of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease between ages 30 and 70.
  • Suicide mortality rate.
  • Harmful use of alcohol defined according to national context as alcohol per capita (15+ years old) consumption within a calendar year in liters of pure alcohol.9

India lacks the resources to monitor such metrics in a meaningful way. There are no comprehensive information systems to collect morbidity and mortality data from all sectors that might have it, so the country uses modelling to estimate burden of disease from NCDs. India’s national Health Management Information System covers only government facilities. National programs meant to monitor NCD prevalence and provide treatment services have barely gotten off the ground after eight years. Although some states have taken on initiatives to monitor and treat NCDs, this doesn’t help the national effort. And there is virtually no information on services for substance abuse or per capita alcohol consumption. Clearly, the lack of rigorous data to monitor progress will be a big challenge for India. Data systems that might be created will be huge, so that the required disaggregation can be done; in addition, intersectoral cooperation will require increasing human and financial capital.10


Data Systems Must Be Strengthened


The UN Statistical Commission will be discussing these and other challenges in March. The provisional agenda calls for a discussion of both how to address the need for funding statistical capacity-building, as well as how to harness any opportunities provided by the data revolution that might support SDG implementation. To date, there are several bodies that exist for statistical capacity and technical assistance—such as PARIS21, a partnership that aims to reduce poverty and improve government in developing countries by promoting the integration of statistics and reliable data in the decisionmaking process.11 But much work remains.


  1. “SDG Indicators: The Last Missing Piece of the 2030 Agenda,”YouTube video with UN assistant secretary-general for Economic Development Lenni Montiel; director of UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)’s Statistics Division Stefan Schweinfest; and chief of the Statistical Service Branch in UN DESA’s Statistics Division Francesca Perucci, accessed at, on March. 3, 2016.
  2. Prasanta Mahapatra et al., “Civil Registration Systems and Vital Statistics: Successes and Missed Opportunities,” Lancet 370, no. 9599 (2007): 1653-63.
  3. UN Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), “Update on the Work of the IAEG-SDGs: Informal Briefing on the Global Indicator Framework for the SDGs,” (January 2016), accessed at–Status-of-IAEG-SDGs-work-on-global-SDG-indicators-28-Jan-2016.pdf, on Feb. 26, 2016; and Elizabeth Lockwood, “Update on Global SDG Indicator Framework,” (January 2016), accessed at, on Feb. 26, 2016.
  4. John Maurice, “UN Set to Change the World With New Development Goals,” Lancet 386, no. 9999 (2015): 1121-4.
  5. World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), “Global Civil Registration and Vital Statistics: Scaling Up Investment Plan 2015-2024,” (May 2014), accessed at, on Feb. 12, 2016.
  6. Laurence Chandy and Christine Zhang, “Stuffing Data Gaps With Dollars: What Will it Cost to Close the Data Deficit in Poor Countries?” (August 2015), accessed at, on March 2, 2016.
  7. Swati Srivastava, “India and the SDGs: Can We Really Monitor Our Progress?” (January 2016), accessed at, on Feb. 26, 2016.
  8. Srivastava, “India and the SDGs.”
  9. UN Stats, “Results of the List of Indicators Reviewed at the Second IAEG-SDG Meeting,” (November 2015), accessed at, on Feb. 26, 2016.
  10. Srivastava, “India and the SDGs.”
  11., “Our Mandate,” accessed at, on Feb. 26, 2016.