RSS sections and groups meeting reports

West Midlands local group and International Development section joint meeting: Measuring sustainable development

Written by Cyril Chimisov on . Posted in Sections and local group meeting reports

RSS West Midlands Local Group and RSS International Development Section jointly hosted a meeting at the University of Warwick on Thursday 9 March 2017, where Matthew Powell from Oxford Policy Management spoke about the topic 'Measuring sustainable development'.

Matthew Powell is a senior statistical consultant for Oxford Policy Management, one of the UK’s leading international development consultancies. Originally an economic statistician; in recent years he has lead, worked on and evaluated projects to develop national, global, and donor systems to monitor development goals. He is the current meetings secretary for the RSS International Development  Section.

Matthew talked about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as 'Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development'. Before discussing the SDGs in more detail, Matthew alluded to their concept and origin: in 2015, the 194 countries of the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Following the adoption, UN agencies decided to support a campaign that introduced 17 aspirational 'Global goals', stretching from 'No poverty' and 'Climate action' to 'Peace justice' and 'Strong institutions'.

Matthew explained that the aforementioned goals are accompanied by 169 targets and 230 global indicators. Whereas targets are unambiguously defined (eg 'to reduce child mortality by a third in the next 15 years'), the indicators are split into three different categories (tiers) depending on the methodology and availability of data. The global indicators were developed following a series of Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IEAG) meetings that took place between 2015 and 2017. Interestingly, the IAEG meetings resulted in a call for a 'data revolution' in order to devise and improve instruments to tackle the indicators system.

In his talk, Matthew related the SDGs to another set of UN goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000. Some MDG achievements are impressive: for example, during 2000–2015, the amount of people living in extreme poverty decreased by nearly a half. At the same time, the MDG experience revealed various issues. Many of them were political obstacles, but on the other hand there were outstanding statistical challenges along the way. For instance, it was only in 2014 that the number of observations for some indicators exceeded 16 for the majority of countries. In addition, some developed countries such as the UK have a 'leave no one behind' policy. Under this policy, collected data should include information about every group of people in the area or survey where the survey is conducted. No segregated community should be failing to meet the Global Goals.

Giving his concluding remarks, Matthew emphasised the importance of global partnership, which has not lost its role in a world of advanced statistical methods and increasing amounts of collected data. How do we write a summary of 200 different indicators? How can one exploit the results on the national and global scales? How can we control for attempts by certain governments to game the system? How do we know that everything possible is being done in order to achieve SDGs in societies where many indicators are improving anyway, regardless of policies undertaken? These and many other issues can be resolved only through worldwide collaboration of governments and internationals organisations.

The above talk summary is also available at

West Midlands Local Group International Development Statistics Section (IDSS)