How to Leverage Indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals? Lessons from the Millennium Development Goals

The nutrition community has been pushing hard to embed more nutrition indicators and targets in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The assumption, presumably, is that they will improve the prospects of improvements in nutrition.

But how does this happen in practice? Governments and other large institutions usually need strong incentives to change policies and resource allocation. What can we learn from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) about how indicators and targets help leverage change?

The evidence suggests that the key is to build an effective constituency that will use the indicators to advocate for change and gain the attention of the top level of governments and other policy-makers, through appealing to the raw data and through persuasive analytical work.

An effective constituency implies a broadly-based coalition with good access and public profile and a relentless focus on an agreed and well-specified objective. Campaigns on HIV and other key infectious diseases leading to the establishment in 2002 of the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria and on maternal and child health (see below), are good examples of how to make effective progress against the background of the MDGs.

Raw data can be used in two potentially effective ways: first, to highlight lack of progress against an agreed target. For example, the evidence provided by data on MDGs 3 and 4 enabled the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health to mount a strong campaign up to the G8 Summit in 2010 to highlight the serious shortfalls in progress on child and maternal mortality, which translated into specific additional pledges ( › Analytical Studies › Analysis on Muskoka Summit ). Similarly, the health community has used data on MDG 6 (infectious disease) as a key resource, alongside evidence from the programs themselves, for arguing the case for the successful replenishments of the Global Fund in December 2013 and GAVI in January 2015.

Second, such data can also be very effectively used in benchmarking a region, a country, or sub-national entities against their peers, so turning the spotlight on places which appear to be being left behind. Policy makers at all levels can be effectively challenged if they are falling short of progress in neighbouring regions, countries and sub-national units. UNDP has promoted such approaches effectively for sub-national reporting in countries like Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines ( see MDG Acceleration Framework). Similarly, benchmarking can be by levels of income: the expected focus on inequalities in the Sustainable Development Goals is a welcome encouragement to this. Such benchmarking does not depend on a target having been set, and can therefore be used for any indicator.

Well-constructed analytical work, based on the data, has a good chance of affecting decision-makers if mediated by an effective constituency or campaign. Thus in the field of education, the production of a high-quality annual report on Education for All (EFA; see here) has given the education community a strong evidence-base for assessing where progress has and has not been made. By basing the report on the ‘Education for All’ paradigm, the education community has also been able to present a more holistic analysis than the rather limited indicators contained in the MDGs. The EFA Report has for example helped to ensure that the relevant SDG will have suitable emphasis on attainment as well as access.