June 2015: The global community, in its preparations for the next 15-year development agenda, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), has noted time and again that this is meant to be a “transformative” and inclusive agenda. It aims to transform all lives, including those who were left behind in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
If we look at the 17 Goals and 169 targets*, we can see this clearly, and note how much more comprehensive, and by association complicated, this framework really is.
A transformative agenda needs ambitious targets
Despite these more comprehensive and progressive targets, a look at the proposed indicators* – the way we will measure if we’ve met our goals – reveals a persistent tendency to maintain the status quo and keep using outdated indicators, effectively ignoring the more progressive and inclusive aspects of the goals.
This completely misses the transformative opportunity inherent in the agenda. It seems obvious that we will need to upgrade and even develop new forms of measurement, as many of the goals incorporate new ideas and necessarily include new populations who have been invisible in data collection and analysis in the past.
This is especially true for girls; particularly younger adolescents aged 10 to 14, a population typically excluded from the traditional age range associated with data collection for women of reproductive age. Yet we have learned, through hard lessons and lost lives, that reproduction starts before 15. Given this, it is especially important to include 10 to 14 year-olds in indicators related to sexual and reproductive health, as well as others that are relevant to their ability to live their lives to their fullest potential.
For example, the current indicator suggested for target 3.7, (By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes) recommends the indicator, “Percentage of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) who have their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.” This is the long-used reproductive age range that is still considered the standard, despite data noting the increased risk of complications and even death for girls who are pregnant or give birth under 15 years of age.
It is also important to remember that sexual and reproductive health, including the age range associated with this, does not only mean actual reproduction. Menstruation, a significant part of girls’ and women’s reproductive systems and lives, often begins well before 15.
This is just one example of adolescents’, particularly younger adolescents’ needs and rights being left out of SDG procedures. If they are not explicitly included in the indicators, then they will remain invisible in the monitoring, reporting, and analysis of progress on the SDGs. We know from experience with the MDGs that what is measured is often what is prioritised, making it much less likely that governments and other actors will be incentivised to meet the needs of this vulnerable group.
Girls’ needs must be made visible
It is not only those targets and indicators associated with sexual and reproductive health that require newer and better indicators to capture what truly needs to be measured. For some of the more complex targets such as 2.2, which states, “By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons,” the only indicator currently recommended calls for measuring the prevalence of stunting for children under 5 years of age.
While under-5 stunting rates are exceptionally important, tracking this does nothing to track progress on nutrition for adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women (who are often girls themselves), and older persons.
Reducing the indicators to the easiest to measure variables ignores the lessons we have learned from years of research: if the most vulnerable – those most subject to discrimination and exclusion – are not included from the beginning, their progress will not be measured, they will continue to be invisible, and transformation will fail.
The next generation of indicators
We should not be afraid to aspire to new, more comprehensive indicators. In fact, it is logical that by 2030 the indicators used should not be the same ones we used today. Nor are the indicators we use today the same ones we used in 2000. Data gathering and analytic capacity has improved, along with our ideas of what is important to measure.
There is a reason this new agenda is much larger and more inclusive than the MDGs: it needs to be if we are to create lasting, sustainable change in the world, and ensure that the hardest to reach are able to benefit from the advances the rest of the world is enjoying, achieve their rights, and realise their full potential.
Some are calling this push for new and improved indicators the “next generation of indicators” and that is indeed what we need. We cannot achieve true transformation without ambitious indicators which will push the global community beyond what is currently being tracked, measured, and analysed. We cannot use old indicators to measure new ideas.
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