“Eradicate small pox.” “Ban land mines.” Global goals can have real impact. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were established to achieve the goals of universal education, global equality, eradicating global poverty and combatting HIV/AIDS, among others, by 2015. As that date approaches, the United Nations has unleashed a bewildering range of consultation activities on what should succeed the MDGs when they expire. UN outreach has included more than 50 national consultations, 11 thematic exercises, a public web portal and a high-level panel led by UK Prime Minister Cameron and Presidents Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. In addition, following Rio+20, groups were established to develop proposals for Sustainable Development Goals, including a “solutions network” led by economist Jeffrey Sachs. Can this bouillabaisse of processes and cacophony of advocates produce an agreed development framework for post-2015? The multitude of suggestions — every interest group will press their own priority — should be screened based on the potential to assess and measure progress.

Incorporating the advantages of the MDGs, but avoiding their disadvantages, will involve difficult judgments:

  • If post-2015 goals, our aspirations for what is most important to accomplish, apply to the whole world, will we divert or dilute the focus on the poorest and least-developed countries?
  • Given the many competing priorities that will be proposed, can we limit the number of post-2015 goals to a digestible number?
  • Should we simply recalibrate targets for the existing MDGs or should goals be included for new issues such as secondary and tertiary education, skill development, security, human rights, democracy, climate change, water, economic growth, inequality, anti-corruption, tax evasion and land mine clearance?
  • Are existing indicators sufficiently reliable to track progress?

Goals dictate priorities and resource allocation. The post-2015 debate is an opportunity to change the system, introducing goals on inclusivity, infrastructure and governance.

The response of officials in the UN bureaucracy to the post-2015 question is unenthusiastic — similar to that of anyone when asked to square a circle. They are aware there is little consensus on indicators, and no agreement on criteria and methodologies to develop internationally comparable statistics. So what is the answer? Purely aspirational goals should be sidelined. Proposed post-2015 goals should be dumped if their progress cannot be measured. Instead, they should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. 

Both the quality of the debate and the degree of public awareness depends in large part on the capacity for measurement, monitoring and reporting on progress. Without measurement, we are simply debating theology and articles of faith. Indicators to measure progress — accessible to lay readers — can highlight countries with best practices and sensitize public opinion. Measurement affects behaviour: “Tell me what you are going to measure, I will tell you how I am going to behave.”[1] However, the current state of indicators and data is dismal. In the health sector, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that “currently only 34 countries — representing 15% of the world’s population — produce high quality cause-of-death data and almost all of these are in Europe and the Americas.” The WHO has to resort to statistical modelling to estimate disease burdens. Potential indicators for health goals are relatively well developed; reliable indicators for goals for equitable economic rules, civil rights and global governance are few and far between. To exacerbate the problem, there is a demand for data disaggregation for gender and several other dimensions, for which statistics are not available.  

There are intimidating challenges in selecting indicators for goals and targets. Ideally, outputs should be measured more than inputs. Effort counts, but results are more important. Outputs, outcomes and the quality of processes are, however, more difficult to measure than inputs. One seductive trap is to use an index — a tempting summary of a wide range of information. But the arbitrary choice of weights can distort the results of an index. In the absence of administrative data, the only recourse is perception-based data derived from surveys. Professionally done, unbiased surveys are feasible, but expensive.

What are interested parties to do, given the unappetizing stew of unrealistic and inconsistent demands produced by the UN process? One solution is to choose goals that deliver fair and open processes, which are likely to result in better outcomes. In other words, goals should emphasize characteristics of processes, such as participation, transparency and accountability, all of which influence outcomes. A second option is to promote investment in statistical capacity and household surveys. There is a good business case to be made for more and better data. The bottom line is that interest groups should suggest indicators to assess progress, including the costs of obtaining data that is not provided by existing administrative systems. If data does not exist to track indicators for many worthy aspirational goals, let’s constrain the choice of goals to those we can measure.

[1] Kenneth E. Kirby, associate professor, Department of Industrial Engineering at The University of Tennessee. See www.dracointl.net/lean-manufacturing-quotes.html.


The post-2015 debate is an opportunity to change the system, introducing goals on inclusivity, infrastructure and governance.