There has been a lot of chatter amongst the business community about contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with numerous businesses, such as Heineken and Unilever diligently mapping activities (whether core business, philanthropic or community investment) against the SDGs. This reflects clear intent to contribute to the progress of the SDGs.
While such activities have likely contributed to one or more of the 17 Goals, there appears to be a gap between the official indicators used to track progress against the SDGs and the data/information businesses are tracking to evidence their contributions to progress.
Progress on the SDGs is a data driven process
While the SDGs are aspirational in nature, they have a framework of indicators and statistical data set up to monitor progress, inform policy and ensure accountability of all stakeholders. Each Goal is linked to Targets, the progress of which are measured by Global Indicators. These Global Indicators are further broken down into Thematic Indicators. The 17 SDGs have a total of 169 accompanying Targets, progress of which are tracked through 230 unique Global Indicators.
Figure one provides an overview of the framework set behind each SDG. SDG 4 is used as an illustrative example. Please note SDG 4 has a total of 10 Targets, 11 Global Indicators and 43 Thematic Indicators, not all of which are listed here.
1 Diagrammatic representation of the framework behind a Sustainable Development Goal. Figure provides an example using SDG 4 on Education. Please note, SDG 4 has a total of 10 Targets, 11 Global Indicators and 43 Thematic Indicators, not all of which are listed. The above diagram is for illustrative purposes only.
To understand progress against SDG 4 on Education, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) works to produce internationally comparable official statistics by gathering statistics from Member States and other recognised sources of information (e.g. World Bank, IMF) and putting it through a process of validation and standardisation. The UIS, as part of the UN statistical system, works with governments that compile and report official statistics often based on a wide range of data sources. These often include data collected by independent assessment centres, researchers and others, but data are more readily available for state-administered or regulated education providers.
Assumptions that the contribution of aligned activities are captured in the measurement of SDG progress
Most companies looking to contribute to the SDGs have mapped activities they are undertaking against the various Goals. This, however, is quite different from matching outcomes from these activities against the Global Indicators – the data points that determine progression towards Targets.
Using SDG 4 as a reference point, a company would, for example, list activities such as support for programmes boosting access to primary education for marginalised children, but not how the outcomes or outputs of these activities have contributed to or impacted the Global Indicator datapoints being tracked (e.g. in this case, a relevant data point could be how the activity has impacted Out of school primary rates under Target 4.1). While these activities are clearly aligned and one could safely assume their efforts would contribute to the overall lowering of out of school primary rates at a national level, there is little reporting around how the results of these programmes fare in the larger national context which is being measured.
In some cases, it is also unclear how tools such as the SDG Compass, which provides guidance for how companies can measure and manage their contribution to the realisation of the SDGs indicators, align with the Global Indicators. The SDG Compass maps SDG Targets against commonly used business frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the UN Global Compact-Oxfam Poverty Footprint. Indicators from these frameworks act as indicators companies could use to evidence their contribution toward the SDGs. While these identified business indicators have clear links to the Targets they are mapped against, it remains unclear if the Global Indicators capture the results of these activities. This might not be the case for all business indicators, but the explicit link between the Global Indicators that are being officially tracked seems to be difficult to ascertain for some identified business indicators.
Taking one of the Targets for SDG 4 as an example, the success of Target 4.3, to ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university by 2030, is officially measured by the participation rate of youth and adults in formal and non-formal education and training in the previous 12 months, by sex. The suggested business indicator comes from GRI G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, looking at the average hours of training per year per employee by gender, and by employee category. One can presume that regularly trained employees would be citizens and therefore the training those citizens received would have been captured in national data around formal and non-formal education and training participation rates. This however remains an assumption and raises questions over what official data is tracking and what it’s not.
Beyond the question of whether or not business efforts are captured in official SDG indicators, it is virtually impossible to attribute progress and determine just how much businesses are actually contributing to the SDGs.
However, businesses should not be discouraged from reporting alignment to the SDGs, as these Goals are complex in nature and have other indicators besides the Global Indicators which can help to tell the story as well. For example, the SDGs put the focus on life-long learning not only in initial education, but in relation to early childhood development, youth and adult learning. These can be challenging areas for measurement, where there is not always consensus on how to define and measure, but the SDGs give greater impetus to finding solutions, learning from others and building up more comprehensive information systems at the national and regional levels. SDG 4’s education targets currently cover a large spectrum, from early childhood education to adult education. A good way for businesses to better ensure alignment would be to take national agendas/priorities (and/or other partners such as civil society organisations) as signals. In Asia, UNESCO shares that there is a strong focus on youth skills and global citizenship and education for sustainable development and countries are taking the lead in framing and developing measures to better capture these areas.
The reality is that some of these business data would be difficult to compile at a global level based on reporting from individual organisations (and are typically collected through enterprise surveys or Labour Force Surveys and estimates for the country based on a sample of enterprises or individuals) and one should not discount data presented in a more qualitative way. Indicators differ as they serve different purposes and speak to different audiences, a business can align to the specific aspirations of the Goals and Targets, and present indicators which best capture their specific contribution.
As business continues to support the SDGs, they should be aware that efforts being captured at the global level through the official Global Indicators may not directly include business reported data. To further show that one’s business has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the progress of SDGs, businesses should consider looking not just at the Targets but also at the Global Indicators and report outcomes and outputs of their programmes against related national averages or in a way that shows clear alignment with national priorities.
Many thanks to Albert Motivans, Senior Education Statician at the UNESCO Institute of Statistics for his kind contribution to this article.