Improving sustainable development data is a task for all

by Martine Durand, OECD Chief Statistician and Director of the OECD Statistics Directorate

This article is featured in the Development Co-operation Report 2017: Data for Development to be released on 17 October 2017. Read the report and find out more about data for development.

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In an era of fake news and alternative facts, statisticians have a special responsibility. As the custodians of the evidence base for policy making, they must stand up for the right of all citizens to true, reliable and accessible information.

This is especially the case in the development field, and even more so since world leaders adopted the extraordinarily ambitious and wide-ranging 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. At the heart of this global “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that “are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental”, with the ultimate objective to leave no one behind. Achieving the SDGs will require informed choices about priorities and strategies, and for this we will need a better evidence base than we have today.

But statisticians – and especially statisticians in developing countries – cannot do this job alone.

They will need the support of the whole of government and society to develop the data and analysis that will show how to meet agreed national and global objectives efficiently. Finance ministries must guarantee adequate funding over the medium term to develop sound national statistical systems and institutions, with national statistical offices playing a central role.  Aid providers must be ready to co-ordinate and support the right technical capacity to help fill data gaps. Central governments must ensure that statisticians can work without political interference. And civil society, including the private sector, must work in partnership with national statistical offices to provide feedback and – where appropriate standards and safeguards are in place – contribute their own data.

When the then United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came to Paris in the run-up to the 2015 leaders’ summit, OECD Secretary-General Gurría promised that the OECD would be the UN’s “best supporting actor” in the global effort to achieve the SDGs. Since then, the OECD has been active on numerous fronts to help the world rise to the information challenge posed by the 2030 Agenda.

The OECD’s first contribution has been to lend direct support to the UN by providing data on the agreed set of global SDG indicators, either straight from its own datasets or in combination with data from other agencies. The OECD has also contributed to both the 2016 and 2017 UN reports on SDG progress, and is working actively to help develop the required new, but yet unavailable, indicators identified by the UN’s Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators.

A substantial share of the OECD’s data contribution to tracking SDG progress comes from the Organisation’s database on official and private international flows for development. Annual data collection started in 1961 and has been successively extended and elaborated to provide ever more detailed and precise information, reaching down to the level of individual aid activities. In the context of the financing for development agenda endorsed in Addis Ababa in 2015, these data are vital for assessing whether aid is being directed to the areas of greatest need, pinpointing where donors may need to better co-ordinate, or comparing aid inputs with development results.

The universality of the 2030 Agenda also means that OECD countries have broader responsibilities. They should both set an example in implementing the 2030 Agenda themselves and ensure that their actions contribute to its achievement elsewhere. This thinking inspired the approach to the OECD Study on Measuring Distance to the SDG Targets, which responded to demands from several OECD member countries for help in planning their policy and data responses to the SDGs. The study identifies relevant indicators, proposes a method for setting 2030 target levels,

and suggests how performance can be compared among targets so as to identify priorities for action. It places special emphasis on transboundary or “spillover” effects. Several OECD countries have used the study to stimulate national dialogue on the SDGs, and OECD committees are finding it useful when considering how to integrate the SDGs into their policy work.

Two decades ago the OECD helped conceive and promote the Millennium Development Goals through its Shaping the 21st Century strategy and its co-ordination of the inter-agency publication calling for A Better World for All. The challenge posed today by the SDGs is even greater, especially in the field of data and evidence. The OECD intends to play its full part in the global effort to meet this challenge, and encourages all involved to do the same.

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