Transparency can help get the Sustainable Development Goals back on track

Countries need to provide reliable data about their impact on global challenges

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, which promise to end extreme poverty and inequality by 2030, were already “seriously off-track” in November last year, according to the UN secretary general António Guterres. The UN’s latest report shows that with Covid-19 reaching these goals is an even greater challenge, with least developed countries (LDCs) amongst those that “stand to be hit hardest”.

Achieving the goals depends on international cooperation

The Covid-19 pandemic has, like climate change, reminded us that national actions can have consequences for people around the world. So whilst the SDGs are national targets, many cannot be achieved through national efforts alone – they depend on international action and collaboration.

For example: 

  • Goals on reducing modern slavery and child labour (target 8.7) depend on multinational­ corporations undertaking effective due diligence to reduce risks in their supply chains and operations. 
  • Goals on increasing government revenues (target 17.1) depend on global companies paying their fair share of taxes and not being able to shift profits to tax havens.
  • Goals on reducing illicit financial flows (target 16.4) depend on effective anti-money laundering controls in international financial centres around the world.

The impact of actions taken elsewhere is particularly significant for countries who face the greatest challenges in meeting the SDGs and are disproportionately affected by global problems, including the world’s least developed countries. In an interconnected world, progress in these countries benefits everyone.

Measure the actions which impact the goals

However, without accurate data on actions that impact the SDGs, we cannot really know where progress is being made on the wide range of targets that depend on international collaboration. These include targets relating to migration, debt, remittances, environmental impact, human rights, illicit financial flows, aid, trade, and tax. 

Example data gaps include transparency of loans to governments, progress on returning stolen assets, multinational corporation tax payments and environmental performance. This type of data complements, but goes beyond, measuring progress on the goals within a country, which most SDG indicators and current SDG data efforts focus on.

In addition, governments that spend their citizens’ taxes on aid to developing countries owe it to their citizens to be transparent about the others ways they impact those countries. There are plenty of examples of donor countries exacerbating, or not doing enough to mitigate, problems in countries which are recipients of their aid (see some UK-Nigeria examples).

Donor countries like the UK could get much better value for their tax payers if they looked at their performance on international development in the round, by measuring the impact of their non-aid actions towards developing countries. 

Disaggregated data is powerful data

There are many initiatives to campaign for improved transparency on specific issues included in the SDGs – including illicit flows, tax, debt and corporate transparency. But even where data has started to be reported, there’s often more to do to make it more powerful in progressing the SDGs. Here are three common challenges:

First, the most basic problem is that governments and companies often default to aggregate information, such as the total amount of stolen assets returned by the UK, or companies reporting polluting discharges[1] without a country breakdown. These figures aren’t good enough to understand the implications for SDG progress because they hide whether the people and countries have furthest to go in achieving the SDGs, are being disproportionately affected. They also don’t help the people and countries affected hold those responsible for their actions.  All data should be disaggregated, at least to a country level, so that the impact on low income and least developed countries is clear.

Second, for transparency data to be powerful it needs something to compare it to. For example, the value of stolen assets returned to Nigeria by the UK has greater meaning when provided beside an estimate of the total value of stolen Nigerian assets in the UK. Payments to governments for natural resources are more meaningful if you also know the value of resources extracted.

Third, users of the data should know what they are getting.  International data is rarely perfect or complete so it should be complemented by data on its quality and comprehensiveness. This can then be used to track progress in the quality of reporting. A good example are the data quality checks undertaken in compiling the Aid Transparency Index.

Better data is possible

Despite these challenges, powerful international data to support the SDGs is not out of reach. People have shown they care about the accuracy and reliability of nationally reported data pertinent to global crisis (carbon emissions and the spread of Covid-19). Progress in opening up government data and strengthening government accountability for domestic policies shows what is possible. The importance of measuring national progress on the SDGs has been grasped. Another step in the sustainable development data revolution will help that progress to be realised.

[1] Alliance for Corporate Transparency 2019 Research Report An analysis of the sustainability reports of 1000 companies pursuant to the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive. E.g. 20.9% of companies surveyed provided an aggregate KPI on polluting discharges to water, 1.5% disaggregated this by country.(page 56)