Will the SDG indicators leave no one behind?
A comprehensive review of disaggregation in the SDG framework
by Amelia Pittman
A central promise of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) is to leave no one behind, but the current indicators to measure progress don’t keep that promise. To leave no one behind means reaching the poorest of the poor, women, children, the elderly, indigenous people, migrants, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups. Aggregates and averages won’t be enough to capture whether their needs have been met or if they’ve slipped through the cracks. As the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDG) reviews proposed changes to the SDG indicators as part of its 2020 Comprehensive Review, disaggregation is a critical issue they must consider. If the right disaggregations are specified for these indicators – and the necessary data collected – more resources can be prioritized to ensure the promise of leaving no one behind is kept.
Of the 232 unique SDG indicators, 97 require data about individuals and families, and these must include the right disaggregations to leave no one behind. Although the IAEG-SDGs has provided a detailed summary of disaggregation requirements for all SDG indicators,Open Data Watch has conducted an independent review of the SDG indicators on individuals using the most recent SDG metadata. We have found many indicators that lack critical disaggregations.[i]
Only about half of these include explicit disaggregation in their descriptions. But the SDG metadata provides a more complete picture. According to the metadata, the 97 indicators require a total of 283 disaggregations, an average of 3 types of disaggregation per indicator. The most common are by sex, age, income or wealth, and education, though they aren’t included as often as they could or should be. And other critical types of disaggregation such as disability, race and ethnicity, urban or rural location, employment, citizenship, and indigenous status rarely appear, more often in the metadata than in the indicator descriptions.
Any SDG indicator that can be disaggregated by sex should be. UN Women has identified 54 gender-relevant indicators, but these are only indicators with sex mentioned in their description. As of our review in August 2019, the SDG metadata require sex disaggregation for 73 indicators, with 13 additional indicators applying only to women, resulting in a total of 86 gender-relevant indicators. (These counts exclude repeated indicators.) That leaves 11 indicators that could and should be sex-disaggregated but are not so specified in their metadata. These indicators measure incidence of disease, proportions of the population covered by vaccines, and access to critical amenities such as safe drinking water, electricity, a mobile network, and the Internet.[ii] Open Data Watch also found that the IAEG list of disaggregations omits sex for 8 indicators for which the metadata specifies disaggregation by sex. Poverty is sexist, and the gender dimension must be fully integrated to monitor and address inequalities.
The IAEG-SDG’s 2020 Comprehensive Review will consider proposals to add, replace, revise, or delete existing SDG indicators. As part of this, the IAEG-SDG should review whether critical disaggregations are included and whether disaggregated data are being collected. More than two thirds of individual-level indicators include disaggregation by age that will help uncover important inequalities across age groups. To ensure that the poorest of the poor are being reached, data should be disaggregated by income distribution, but fewer than half of the indicators on individuals specify disaggregations needed to measure poverty. Differences in education levels are included as disaggregation for about a quarter of SDG indicators. And more than two thirds of SDG indicators fail to track other critical types of disaggregation that will ensure that no one is left behind. Disaggregation by disability status is included for only 15 indicators. Disaggregation by race and ethnicity is included for 12 indicators. Disaggregation by urban or rural locations is included for 11 indicators. Disaggregation by citizenship and migration status is included for eight indicators. But indigenous communities are by far the most neglected with only four indicators requiring disaggregation by indigenous status. How can the SDGs promise to leave no one behind when these vulnerable segments of the population remain hidden in the data?
The open consultation on proposals for the IAEG-SDG’s comprehensive review is a key opportunity to advocate for improved disaggregation of the SDG indicators and to reevaluate their specifications. Existing proposals for improvements to reach all segments of society need support, but not one proposed change includes adjustments to increase disaggregations of existing indicators. Revisions to indicators may require increased sample sizes, which has implications for the cost of conducting surveys. Some disaggregations may be politically sensitive. But the benefit of being able to keep the core promise of the SDGs make the effort worthwhile.
The deadline for submitting inputs is 8 September 2019. Along with many other organizations, Open Data Watch will be sharing feedback.
[i] This spreadsheet shares a portion of a review conducted by Chandrika Kaul.
[ii] The full list of indicators that do not specify sex disaggregation but should are Indicators 3.3.3, 3.3.4, 3.3.5, 3.b.1, 6.1.1, 6.2.1, 7.1.1, 9.c.1, 10.1.1, 11.a.1, and 17.6.2.