“Sustainable”. “Development.” “Inclusive.” We all know the buzzwords of global economic development– but what exactly do they mean? And more importantly, how can we gauge if we are moving towards accomplishing those goals?
In September 2015, the United Nations adopted The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – basically that organization’s answer to those fundamental questions. The goals were part of its broader Agenda 2030 that outlined a strategy for sustainable development in the pursuit of universal peace and the eradication of poverty.
The SDGs replaced the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the developing world that the UN pursued from 2000-2015, broadening the objectives to include challenges faced globally. The MDGs aimed to halve extreme poverty, to end the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to provide universal primary education, whereas the SDGs have the added value of also galvanizing the developed world to action. The SDGs are a continuation of the work accomplished by the MDGs over the past 15 years, but with a wider scope.
Uniquely, the SDGs combine economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability, shifting away from the outmoded goals of prosperity and economic gains to sustainable development on local, national, and international levels.
Like their predecessors, the SDGs are ambitious, and their implementation often requires an immediate and comprehensive transition away from the modus operandi. Many challenges—addressing climate change and carbon dioxide emissions for example—demand a fundamental overhaul of well-establish, but unsustainable methods and procedures as seen in the global energy market.
In order to maintain positive momentum, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the body which conceived the goals, is focusing primarily on assisting nations in the application of the SDGs to their local needs, identifying priorities, and beginning implementation.
But simply defining the goals is only part of the challenge. How can we gauge progress? What data can tell us if we are on the right track?
Introducing The Sustainable Development Goals Index
As part of the monitoring and follow-up framework to determine how nations are faring, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Bertelsmann Stiftung created the SDG Index and Dashboards – Global Report to track progress and to hold nations accountable to these goals.
The SDG Index provides a measure for every country to identify and prioritize the challenges it faces, and it offers a means to compare other nations with similar levels of economic development. In addition, the SDG Dashboard provides a visual representation of the status of the goals, color coordinating them as “green,” meaning the country has achieved the goal, “yellow,” meaning it still needs work, or “red,” meaning the goal is far from accomplished.
The SDG Index is a tangible product that ensures that leaders deliver on their promises and maintains momentum for these important reforms.
Development Goals for the Sustainable Development Goals Index
The SDG Index represents a critical new tool for measuring progress in sustainable development. But like all new tools, there is room to refine this one. Considering the scope of the SDGs, there are some gaps in the analysis as a result of a lack of data. There is also the concern that the SDG Index does not consider individual regional challenges, such as malaria or tropical diseases.
There are also inherent challenges when comparing developed countries to emerging markets. For example, consider the first SDG, “No Poverty.” The indicator for OECD countries is a measure of “relative poverty,” considering that levels of absolute poverty are low to non-existent in OECD countries. Rather than focus on absolute poverty, which is defined by the percentage of the population living on less than $1.90 per day, the poverty indicator for OECD nations is the percentage of people who fall under the poverty line. The poverty line is defined as 50 percent of the median disposable income of the total population. This allows for the poverty threshold to change as the median disposable income changes over time. As a result, countries such as Venezuela and Tunisia have “met” their poverty thresholds (as reflected by the green dashboard icon), while countries such as Canada and the United States have not met their relative poverty thresholds, earning them yellow and red dashboard icons respectively.
Green dashboards notwithstanding, poverty certainly remains a priority in Tunisia, where the unemployment rate is 14.8 percent, and in Venezuela, where inflation erodes the wealth of middle income and poor families. These issues will be addressed in future editions of the SDG Index.
Despite certain data limitations, the SDG Index offers the perspective that we can no longer rely on economic growth to ensure global stability. Reaching these goals will require sustained efforts, and strong leadership to change the direction of how our economies work across the globe, but it is feasible and is well worth undertaking.
Ivie Myntti is a Research Fellow with the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC.