Critical perspectives on the Sustainable Development Goals: are universal indicators meaningful?

On the 25th and 26th of June IHE Delft joins forces with The Centre for Sustainable Development Studies of the University of Amsterdam and other academic institutions for the conference “Critical perspectives on Governance by Sustainable Development Goals: Water, Food and Climate”. In this post Hameed Jamali reflects on the universal indicators adopted to monitor the SDGs, discussing their need for mobilizing resources to implement an ambitious global development agenda, but also their limits in terms of understanding the cultural and political specificity of local contexts.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Global Goals, were agreed by 193 UN member countries in 2015, bringing together economic, environmental and social concerns such as ending poverty, gender equality, addressing climate change and achieve food security. The SDGs are presented as the agenda for people, planet and prosperity, and seek to strengthen universal peace and human freedoms with the slogan of ‘leaving no one behind’. The SDGs are universal–applicable to both high-income and low-income counties–and promise to encompass all aspects of prosperity instead of prevailing model of economic development measured largely by economic growth based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  They build on their predecessor the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were adopted for the period 2000-2015. The MDGs were viewed as a development project of poor countries to be helped by richer countries. However, the SDGs are universal, have ambitious transformative agenda and are presented as ‘comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred set of universal and transformative Goals’ with 169 targets and 232 indicators to measure the progress against set targets for each of the 17 goals.

A recent report categorised a set of 229 indicators in terms of what they measure. This includes people (90 indicators), money (60), governance (38), industrial flows of energy and materials (20) and nature in terms of water, forests, species etc. (18). The focus of indicators on people can be seen as a commitment towards ‘leaving no one behind’, however, this can translate differently when it comes to implementation in different countries.

Indicators are useful tools for generating information to measure progress towards achieving targets of the SDGs. They break complex issues into measurable pieces so that everyone understands these and construct knowledge for decision making. However indicators are reductionist analytical tools and oversimplify complex issues. For example, overuse of GDP as an indicator of progress has led to a focus on economic growth as the main indicator of development where decision makers develop policies focusing on economic growth as their main target. While indicators construct important knowledge, they often emphasise on those areas that are ‘measurable’ rather than the issues that are ‘important’ in different countries and contexts. Use of indicators affects our view of the world and should be carefully utilised by considering different situations at local and sub-national levels in countries.

For example, indicator 6.1.1 on ‘proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services’ provides ample room to interpret meaning of ‘safely managed water’ in a number of ways. Although WHO provides guidelines on safe water, local people and water authorities can have differing understanding of ‘safe water’. In rural Pakistan, groundwater is a common (and preferred) drinking water source, which is perceived as ‘safe’ due to its clear appearance as compared to surface water from canals. However, a recent study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology found that up to 60 million people in Pakistan are consuming polluted water. Similarly, indicator 6.5.1 promotes implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) by assessing enabling environment, institutions and participation, management instruments and financing. The vague and all-encompassing concepts such as IWRM can promote business‐as‐usual strategies and also tend to reflect the ideologies and interests of powerful groups.

Water shortages could affect about 5 billion people around the world by 2050 due to increasing water demand, climatic changes and polluted water supplies, UN World Water Report 2018 warns. More than 2 billion people drink contaminated water and even more lack access to basic sanitation facilities. The total estimated human usage of water is 4,600 cubic km, of which 70% is used for agriculture, 20% for industry and 10% for households. We now know that the current patterns and distributions of water usage in the existing development model are unsustainable. “In the face of accelerated consumption, increasing environmental degradation and the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, we clearly need new ways to manage competing demands on our freshwater resources”, says Gilbert Houngbo, the chair of UN Water.

Goal 6 on water aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The challenges to achieve water related targets are enormous. The world is certainly off-track to achieve water related goals. Billions lack safe water and sanitation facilities, water pollution is worsening, agriculture places enormous stress on water, ecosystems and their services are continuously in decline. The World Bank estimates that to provide basic WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) services to the unserved people will cost $28.4 billion per year from 2015 to 2030 but over 80 percent of countries have insufficient finances to meet national goals on water and sanitation. Moreover, governance structures are weak and fragmented, especially low-income countries have weak institutions and lack trained human resource across the water sector to address these challenges. To accelerate progress on water issues at the global level, the United Nations has declared International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028.

The conference “Critical perspectives on Governance by Sustainable Development Goals: Water, Food and Climate” will be held on the 25th and 26th of June 2018 at University of Amsterdam’s Roeterseiland complex.


Hameed Jamali

Hameed Jamali is a postdoctoral researcher at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Netherlands where he is working on climate change adaptation and water governance issues. Hameed holds a PhD in Development Studies from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Previously, he worked with the UN Environment in Geneva on green economic transformation.

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5 Responses

  1. Robert Lepenies says:

    Nice piece – the SDG water quality indicators are likewise a product of compromise. But where does that lead us? Indicator critique is important, but the Agenda 2030 is also an important (and too little known) driver for global change that can encompass all kinds of strategies.

    • Hameed Jamali says:

      Fully agree with you Robert on the importance of the Agenda 2030 that can have differing implications at the national level when they are operationalised. No one can deny the ambition of a secure future that SDGs promise to realise. However, it is important for the academic community to critically engage with the SDGs and their indicators especially with regards to the marginalised segments of society that are often left behind (as we have seen in the past) in the decision making processes that directly affect them and the resources they depend on.

  2. Shaji Ramakrishnan says:

    Agree with you Mr. Hameed. Often the indicators provided and the description given are very confusing and leads to wrong reporting.

    • Hameed Jamali says:

      Thanks Shaji for your comment. It is indeed challenging to operationalise the SDG indicators and their reporting especially in the Global South.

  1. 02/07/2018

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