So the SDGs are adopted, and they are lovely and far-reaching in their promise to improve the world in a sustainable way, and, they fail miserably in terms of both financing and accountability. But more about that later, because the SDGs deal might be made, but the indicator framework is yet to be decided.
As member states struggled to find agreement on the new development agenda, the indicators were framed as a technical matter separate from the political negotiations. So the member states asked the UN Statistical Commission to work out the indicators, who, in turn, set up a smaller expert group. Their task is huge: in a matter of months they have to propose at least one indicator for each of the 169 targets of the SDGs. In addition, most targets, however well intended, are rather vague and contain at least two different things to measure.
It is not surprising that the member states were keen to avoid negotiating on each and every indicator, but it is ridiculous to claim that it is a technical issue only. It is through the indicators that we measure and monitor the implementation of the SDGs, which means that it is the indicators that decide on which aspect of any given target we focus. These global-level indicators will be the ones that shape the global conversation about progress – and, thus, probably also what directs donor priorities and financing flows, which, in turn, directly influences national-level policy. To put it bluntly, a new opportunity for conditionality.
It goes without saying that indicator development is technical and requires specific expertise, but the decision on what to focus (i.e. which of all the dimensions of any single target that should be measured) is a very political one. Take, for instance, target 4.1, how do you identify the one and only indicator for “all boys and girls completing free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes”? To capture the full scope of the target, you would need at least 5 indicators (completion; free; equitable; quality; learning outcomes), applied to the three levels of education (primary, lower and upper secondary), and disaggregated according to (at least) gender. If adding wealth, location and ability, the disaggregation could maybe work as a proxy for equitable.
The proposed global indicator, however, is learning outcomes in reading and mathematics at end of primary and secondary. This indicator is not a technical necessity but a political choice. Learning outcomes are not synonymous with quality education, nor is measurement in itself a solution to the lack of learning that has been reported over the past years (you remember the famous figure of the 250 million children that are unable to read or write). In fact, we have quite a good idea of the things that need to be in place to ensure quality education for all but instead we choose to measure progress through the performance of those that are in school, while rendering those that are not invisible.
It is ridiculous to frame learning metrics and assessment systems as the most urgent shortcoming in education across the globe, with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics call for “ a single measure of reading and mathematics that is carried out in all countries” as the most recent example. What we need is political will and financial commitments to the development of strong national education systems that ensure both quality and equity. Rather than fostering test-driven systems and competition based on a global metric, the targets should oblige member states to discuss concepts such as equitable, free and quality, and find ways of operationalising them at national level: what does free education mean in today’s world, and what are indicators of quality, or relevant and effective learning outcomes?
Education International has called for human rights-based indicators that measure the extent to which right-holders enjoy their rights, and states fulfil their human rights obligations. The truly transformative global indicator for target 4.1 would have looked at the provision of free primary and secondary education, and would, by doing that, have reinforced free education as a global priority. Because fundamentally these global indicators are also an indication of our priorities for the coming 15 years.