Study researchers gather with IDRC, Southern Voice, Hewlett and UN Foundation representatives at the study launch event in New York.

Smart, Sustainable Development

Carleton project helps countries track sustainable development goals

Written by Elizabeth Murphy

An ambitious international project that was housed at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) recently completed its important work, with a legacy of helping governments and decision-makers better track development progress and make better informed policy decisions.

The Post-2015 Data Test, led by Shannon Kindornay and Kate Higgins, tabled its final report in early July. Drafted jointly by Canadian and Bangladeshi teams, the report examined available data from one developed and six developing countries to assess their ability to measure development efforts, in particular their progress toward the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The project was launched at the North-South Institute, a longstanding independent research organization focused on international development. In 2014, after federal funding cuts, the institute ceased operations, but a partnership with Carleton allowed several of the institute’s projects to continue at NPSIA, including the Post-2015 Data Test.

“The Post-2015 Data Test project led by Shannon Kindornay exemplifies the type of work that the school is associated with,” said NPSIA Director Dane Rowlands. “This project is applied and evidence-based, and provides a stronger foundation for making better development policy.”

Data needed to measure sustainable development

Working with academic and think-tank teams across the globe, the report compiled results from Bangladesh, Canada, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Turkey. Local project teams collected data from government sources and noted not only what data was available but how the public would be able to access it. Some information was available online, while other sources were physical reports and, in some cases, data was collected but not published. This effort required building trust with local statistics offices.

All of this work was done in support of the “data revolution,” a United Nations-led effort to improve international development efforts by equipping policy-makers with enhanced sustainable development data.

“There are things we haven’t measured but want to,” said Kindornay. “For example, we don’t know how many people with disabilities don’t get to go to school worldwide. We don’t know how many girls are able to access health care compared to how many men. This is important policy data that has been missing.

“The data revolution is about harnessing this information to inform better policy,” she added, “and to hold governments accountable for realizing real progress.”

The final report found Canada’s national statistical framework is generally well-equipped to measure progress toward achieving the SDGs but said significant steps must be taken to improve conditions for Indigenous communities. Moreover, it recommended the Canadian government ensure sustainable management of natural resources and tackle climate change.

Kindornay applauds the current government’s commitment to viewing the SDGs as an agenda for Canada, but notes the way forward is not as simple as it may seem.

“In Canada, jurisdiction is an issue and leadership is needed,” she said. “The bulk of the SDG targets are actually managed at the provincial, not federal, level. Meeting these goals is going to require a multi-stakeholder approach. Provinces, municipalities, the private sector and civil society all have to be involved.”

Sustainable development happens at the national level

Overall, the report made numerous recommendations to improve national data collection, measurement and investment decisions. The report noted that it was important for international development interests to interpret the SDGs from the perspective of the countries that will be implementing the policies on the ground.

“In order to achieve real results, countries will translate the sustainable development goals to fit their individual contexts,” said Kindornay. “We need to recognize that change happens at the country level.

“It doesn’t make sense for a country like Canada to focus on a target such as access to primary education when we have universal primary education. What would be of more use would be an indicator such as access to child care.”

The report noted that while the selection of countries is small, it sets out a methodology that can be applied to other countries as they work to achieve these goals. Given the leading role of southern hemisphere-based think-tanks in this report, the effort was successful in bringing southern voices into the international development conversation.

While the project has concluded, the impacts will continue to live on through the engagement of involved researchers. The project findings have been shared with policy-makers, and as countries develop their own data plans, Kindornay expects many of the southern think-tanks involved in the report to continue to offer their expertise.