5 Takeaways From the Latest SDG Negotiations

The latest round of negotiations (23-27 March) to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focused on the indicators and metrics meant to track the 17 goals and 169 targets. With new points of contention and old grievances, it is apparent that many issues remain for the final months of the Post-2015 process, before heads of state meet this September to announce the SDGs. Here are five issues to watch.

1. We're not even close to the finish line.

Too many details are being disputed, and it's not certain that they'll be worked out by September. Countries are debating the role of national sovereignty within SDG targets (i.e., whether countries can decide themselves what targets to adopt), the need for funding for implementation and the desire for an open, democratic process to decide indicators. All developing country groups expressed suspicion of the "technical proofing" process that will change the already politically-agreed proposal of the SDG Open Working Group (OWG).

According to some countries, the OWG's SDG text needs "technical proofing" to ensure that targets are legally sound, easy to understand and do not contradict existing international agreements. And what's more, some targets have empty placeholders where numbers are needed. The process of building a robust measurement framework for the SDGs starts with targets that are measurable.

2. Universality is changing the development game.

The concept of "universality" within the Post-2015 development agenda represents a paradigm shift in governance for sustainable development. With their inclusive agenda, the SDGs will have to be implemented in all countries, while the SDGs' precursor, the MDGs, were primarily aimed at developing nations. The MDGs were the product of a non-participatory expert process, largely implemented in developing countries. The SDG process has been much more inclusive, through negotiating an intergovernmental political consensus and by directly engaging with non-state actors.

But how does universality fit with the more established principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR)? Universality implies that all 17 goals apply to all nations equally, but different nations face different contexts and have differing capacities to respond. 21 countries issued a joint statement to reaffirm the importance of Goal 14 -- ensuring the sustainable use of the oceans -- however, this issue is potentially of little immediate concern to the landlocked developing countries (LLDCs).

3. How will the SDGs actually be implemented on the ground?

In an international governance system where the nation state's sovereignty still reigns, each country has to apply the SDGs to their national context. Given variations in national capacity and political motivations, will countries simply "cherry pick" which SDGs to implement and which to cast aside? Will developed countries not implement goals that represent high-cost, marginal gains, and will developing countries focus on the economic and social elements, potentially at the cost of the environment? With the challenge of applying universality and/or CBDR, we still don't know what SDG implementation will look like, and if it will actually be sustainable.

The UK and the Netherlands indicated that they would struggle to translate target 3.6 -- "Halving the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents by 2030" -- into a national target, given the relatively low level of road traffic deaths. Meanwhile target 7.1 -- ensuring "universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services" -- is troubling because of the vague definitions of "affordable, reliable and modern," -- and any mention of sustainability.

4. Indicators are both technical and political.

The indicators chosen to track the SDGs will undoubtedly influence what development actions take place on the ground. For example, MDG-7's goal to halve the proportion of the global population lacking access to clean water motivated the collection of data evaluating the percentage of the population with "improved/unimproved" water sources. Improved water sources, however, only refer to whether or not a piped water source exists. It tells nothing of the quality of that water. Although the MDG itself includes water quality, the final indicator measured represents a political negotiation between the ideal (i.e., "quality") and the practical (i.e., "improved/unimproved").

The choice of indicators, while technical, has political consequences and includes inherent value judgements. Many member states voiced their concerns that the technical development of indicators takes the SDGs out of an inclusive process. These countries entered the negotiations anxious to make sure that their voice would still be heard. South Africa, representing the G77 and China, stated that indicator development should be steered by both the intergovernmental process and broad, regionally-balanced engagement, with financial support to ensure participation of representatives from developing country statistical offices.

5. Building national statistical capacity will be a huge challenge -- for every country.

No member state can currently measure all of the indicators required to assess progress towards all 169 targets. An unprecedented effort will be required to increase the capacity of every national statistics agency. How will this massive global increase in statistical capacity be financed? Currently, less than one percent of overseas development assistance (ODA) goes to building statistical capacity.

Many representatives concluded that the sheer scale of this challenge means that countries may need to rely on existing indicators. However, other stakeholders argued that there are many other sources of statistics that could be used to measure progress, outside of official statistics, which may be innovative and more appropriate. There may be other indicators that we have not even designed yet. As Elles Blanken, VSO Papua New Guinea, stated in the interactive dialogue, "Let's measure what is needed, so that we do not fall into the trap of just doing what is measurable."

The SDGs will require huge global monitoring and reporting efforts. This is a pivotal moment for international development; the current negotiations could change the lives of billions of people. It's strange to say that a lot of this change rests upon getting the statistics and the metrics right, but it does.