For the past year, worldwide consultations have been undertaken by the United Nations on what should replace the Millennium Development Goals as the vision for future international development. 

What should be Canada’s contribution?

The MDGs are eight goals to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people: 

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
  • Achieve universal primary education;
  • Promote gender equality and empower women;
  • Reduce child mortality;
  • Improve maternal health;
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases;
  • Ensure environmental sustainability;
  • Develop a global partnership for development.

The eight goals are broken down into 21 quantifiable targets measured by 60 indicators and were adopted by 189 countries during the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000. They are to be achieved by 2015.

What should succeed them is very controversial. Should the eight goals be continued, updating targets? Should they address the fact that the world is a very different place than in 2000? Most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries. What about missing issues like rights, the rule of law, and security; enabling infrastructure and connectivity to energy; and information and transportation, for example. There are dozens of serious suggestions on what should happen after 2015.


Picking the right indicators

The post-2015 goals must be simple to understand. They must be enabling, motivate action, and be relevant everywhere. Purely aspirational goals would be ineffective. Measurement is essential. Ideas for goals should be accepted only if there are plausible indicators to track progress. Ideally, indicators should have the capacity to present disaggregated results by gender, income class, regional splits, vulnerable groups, and other dimensions.

Sometimes it will be appropriate to choose indicators for inputs (student enrolment) or outputs (graduation rates). Or outcomes may matter (test results).

Indicators should be accessible to the lay reader. For example, while analysts may prefer the Gini index, it is more accessible and relevant to say that the bottom 10 per cent of a country’s population has X per cent of the national income, while the top 10 per cent has Y per cent.

We should prefer broad, summative indicators that reflect outcomes across the whole sector. The classic example is neo-natal morbidity and mortality that can best be improved only by addressing a wide range of health and nutrition factors. Indices are suggested when issues have multiple dimensions—such as the Global Footprint for environmental sustainability or the Multidimensional Poverty Index.

But one must be careful with indices; the weights of the components are arbitrary and not transparent. Complex, transformed variables may not stand up to close scrutiny when used in cross-national comparisons. Sometimes direct administrative data is not available and we must rely on surveys (although we prefer direct measures to ones based on perceptions, for reasons of comparability, robustness, and legitimacy). Designers of surveys can control the results by manipulating the questions.

Selecting the right indicators is an art and a science. Working with indices or surveys requires great care.

The proponents of the indicators must be trusted and recognized professionals. In the deliberations at the UN over the next year or so, Canada’s niche may be the provision of advice on measurement. Statistics Canada has a reputation as a world-class statistical agency. Our private sector polling firms have extensive expertise and global experience. Perhaps Canada’s contribution would be a public-private partnership between Statistics Canada and a consortium of polling firms. The Canadian partners could offer the UN state-of-the-art advice on a menu of potential indicators for all the candidate goals proposed for post-2015. In addition to providing a welcome service to the international community, Canada would in fact exercise substantial influence on outcomes, given the truth of the saying, “Tell me what you are going to measure, I will tell you how I am going to behave.”

The Canadian partners could offer the UN state-of-the-art advice on a menu of potential indicators for all the candidate goals proposed for post-2015.
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