Beats | May 11, 2017

How do we measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?

The team at


We’re two years into the 15-year Sustainable Development Goals — with a long way to go. Trillions of dollars are needed annually to achieve the 17 wide-reaching goals by 2030. And with hundreds of governments and organizations involved in capturing and reporting data in different ways, how will we know whether we’re making progress?

Take Goal №6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The goal calls for “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” The metric for success is the “proportion of population using safely managed drinking water services.” But most existing data on clean water access hasn’t measured “safe management.” Data from the World Bank’s WASH Poverty Diagnostics that measuring “improved water source” and “basic water” and “improved water on premises,” for example, yields widely varying results.

Even “urban” and “rural” have no consistent international definitions “in spite of being routinely used to describe environments and the lives of those within them,” the World Bank notes in the 2017 Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals. The Bank wants to help provide some clarity around all of the SDG-related measurement murkiness. The Atlas is a visually rich presentation of 1,400 indicators for 220 economies, with data sometimes spanning 50 years. Explainers offer context and tangibility to sometimes misleading data.

A case in point is Goal №1: poverty alleviation. Based on the $1.90 per day global baseline, 35 percent of the world population lived “in poverty” in 1990. By 2013, the rate had fallen to 11 percent. On the surface, the 24 point drop looks like remarkable progress. When national poverty levels are taken into consideration, however, the data tells a different story. Only a handful of countries define their own poverty rates as $2 per day or less. Most countries have made progress in reducing poverty rates between 1990 and 2013. But progress is more measured when national benchmarks are used.

Goal №17 covers better data, itself. “Timely, relevant, reliable, and high-quality data are fundamental to countries setting their own agendas and to monitoring progress toward national and global development goals,” the report states. The Atlas is measuring that, too: “Since 2004, around two-thirds of countries assessed have improved their scores, indicating stronger ability to follow internationally recommended statistical methodologies and to collect and disseminate core socioeconomic statistics.” Further progress on data will make it easier to follow progress on the rest of the 2030 goals.

From the 2017 Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals