UN Sustainable Development Goals: How do we track progress?

Development Goals LogoThe UN set out 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a complement of 169 specific targets in 2015. Their aim was to eradicate poverty, address climate change and build peaceful, inclusive societies for all, by 2030. This is the largest call for action of its kind, covering 193 member states across all sectors, from governments to citizens. So how can we reliably track progress against these goals? What achievements have been made to date? We explore the research underway and key organisations directly involved in gauging success.

Few would argue that the assessment of progress of the 17 SDGs against 169 targets is a straightforward task. Comparatively, the predecessors — 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with 18 defined targets, seemed relatively simple. The UN system, specifically the Statistical Division, has the prodigious task of collating statistical indicators from its member states and relevant global organisations in one place — the Global SDG Indicators Database, for reporting purposes. The UN’s most recent report [1], published on 17th July 2017, summarises this data, charting progress to date.

UN Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017

In his foreword for the report, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, acknowledged some progress had been made towards the SDGs but stated “the rate of progress in many areas is far slower than needed to meet the targets by 2030.”


"...the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, acknowledged some progress had been made towards the SDGs but stated 'the rate of progress in many areas is far slower than needed to meet the targets by 2030.'"


The statistics showed reasonable headway has been made for Goal 1, (ending poverty in all its forms), with a significant drop in the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day from 1.7 B in 1999, to 766 M in 2013. Goal 2 (zero hunger) and Goal 3 (good health and well-being), showed some progress with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where more needs to be done to address malnutrition, maternal mortality rates and lack of access to skilled health workers, amongst other requirements. Attaining targets for SDG4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure), 10 (reduced inequalities), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), showed advances in the right direction, but require more concerted effort to achieve the 2030 deadline.

Some of the key environmental and climate SDGs — 12 (responsible production and consumption), 13 (climate action), 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land), have seen little movement or regression according to the report, and make for depressing reading if the goals are to be achieved on time. According to the data, global sea ice fell in 2016 to its second lowest level on record, and the same year saw a new record temperature for global warming at 1.1 degrees Celsius, above the pre-industrial period.

Deforestation stood at 30.6% in 2015, a reduction of only 0.3% from five years previously. A rise in atmospheric CO2 is contributing to the acidification of the oceans and loss of ecosystems. Over-fishing of marine stocks is at its highest level since the 1970’s.


"Deforestation stood at 30.6% in 2015, a reduction of only 0.3% from five years previously."


The Paris Climate Accord, set in place by 196 countries at the end of 2015, aimed to catalyse global climate action on this front, with targets to reduce green-house gas emissions and hold global temperatures to 2 degrees celsius below pre-industrial records. A perceived key player—the US, led by Donald Trump, has since pulled out of the agreement.

SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) progress displayed marked imbalance across different countries, especially those with low income equality. Finally, SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals) demonstrated some incremental progress but stronger commitment to partnership and cooperation were stated as being required for success by 2030.


"SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) progress displayed marked imbalance across different countries, especially those with low income equality."


Approaches to track goal progression

Effectively tracking progress on the SDGs calls for readily available, reliable data. This can present a challenge to many national and international statistical systems. In a view to address the latter, the first United Nations Data Forum was held in Cape Town, South Africa in January 2017. The aim was to put in place a global action plan for sustainable development data and it outlined several objectives that were developed together with the private sector, academia and civil society. The main strategic objectives of the Cape Town Global Action Plan [2] are listed below:

  • Coordination and strategic leadership on data for sustainable development
  • Innovation and modernization of national statistical systems
  • Strengthening of basic statistical activities and programmes
  • Data dissemination and use
  • Multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • Resource mobilization and coordination

It was adopted by the UN Statistical Commission and progress from countries is being monitored at regular intervals.

The World Bank has also taken an active role in monitoring and data visualisation for the SDGs. It launched its 2017 Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals [3] in April this year. The atlas includes 150 maps and data visualisations showing trends and country-level comparisons on the progress being made towards the 17 SDGs.

The complexities of measuring the success of the SDGs has also prompted many researchers beyond the UN and its affiliated global organisations to develop tools to help. One such group are researchers at the the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a global health research centre housed at the University of Washington in Seattle, US . Here a unique tool has been developed through global research collaboration [4]. Users can employ it to measure advancements from 1990–2015, made by 188 countries towards 33 health-related targets for SDG3. The IHME also developed the related Global Burden of Disease research tool used for the Millennium Goals [5].

Another approach has been to ask those responsible for championing the goals across diverse sectors, to provide an update from their organisation. A recent survey carried out in March 2017 by GlobeScan/SustainAbility [6] asked 500+ experienced sustainability professionals from 79 different countries, drawn from sectors that included government, academia, media, corporate and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to evaluate the progress that has been made on each SDG. They ranked their relative urgency and shared insights into the priorities within their own respective places of work.

The survey results showed that whilst there is some progress, all organisations are showing a below par response. The experts rated NGOs and social entrepreneurs as doing the most to advance the goals (38% of experts rate the performance of NGOs, and 33% that of social entrepreneurs, as good). According to the responses, national governments and the private sector are seen as performing particularly poorly on contributing to progress on the SDGs (61% of experts rate the performance of national governments, and 49% that of the private sector, as poor), indicating there is a lot of room for improvement.

Experts included in the survey ranked Unilever as the top global corporate sustainability leader for the seventh year in a row. Patagonia and Interface took up the second and third positions, listed by 23% and 11% of experts, respectively.

There is some evidence that SDG’s are used by business to help guide decision making, with the Responsible Business Trends Report 2017 published by Ethical Corporation [7], stating that 60% of companies are effectively integrating SDG’s into their business strategy, although there may be some cherry-picking of goals. Further incentive for the private sector was provided by the Business Sustainable Development Commission in February this year, that calculated that delivering the SDGs could help generate $12 trillion in new business opportunities.

So what could be hindering progress in the private sector? A recent whitepaper, Embedding the Sustainable Development Goals into Business, [8] published jointly by Business Fights Poverty and Hult International Business School, concludes that corporations need to move on from commitment to the SDGs, often by a designated ‘Sustainability Department’ of the company, to embedding the goals into core business practice with clear objectives. The latter involves business-wide education of employees and setting measurable targets.

There are organisations that are working to galvanise the actions and contribution of the private sector to help achieve the SDGs. One such organisation is Business Fights Poverty. It is currently the world’s largest community of professionals originating from government, business, and civil society, that centre their work on specific ‘challenges’ relating to the SDG’s to generate collaboration and engagement. For each ‘challenge’ it raises, Business Fights Poverty develops an integrated programme of knowledge and engagement activities, with a specific timeframe and defined output.


Although the official responsibility of reporting on the progress of the SDGs sits with the UN, it relies on global collaboration, and collates its data from diverse and innovative research sources. As such, international, regional and national coordination and data initiatives are fundamental to help monitor the progress made for the 17 SDGs. Its most recent report shows that a sharp acceleration of progress is needed to meet a 2030 deadline, especially with regard to SDGs 12-15, relating to climate change and the environment. Ultimately, there has to be a global responsibility to achieve global initiatives meant to better life for all.

What progress has been achieved in attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

  • There has been a significant drop in the numbers of people living on less than $1.90 per day.
  • There has been little movement on goals related to climate change.
  • Goals related to peace, justice and strong institutions showed an imbalance especially in countries with low income equality.


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  1. UN Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2017/
  2. Cape Town Action Plan For Data Jan 2017: https://undataforum.org/WorldDataForum/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Cape-Town-Action-Plan-For-Data-Jan2017.pdf
  3. World Bank Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2017: http://datatopics.worldbank.org/sdgatlas/
  4. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME): Health-related SDGs. Seattle, WA: IHME, University of Washington, 2016. Available from http://vizhub.healthdata.org/sdg
  5. Global Burden of Disease: IHME, University of Washington: http://www.healthdata.org/gbd/about
  6. The 2017 Sustainability Leaders Report: GlobeScan / Sustainability: http://www.globescan.com/component/edocman/?view=document&id=275&Itemid=591
  7. Ethical Corporation. Responsible Business Trend Report 2017: http://www.ethicalcorp.com/whitepapers/responsible-business-trends-report-2017
  8. Embedding Sustainable Business Goals into Business. Business Fights Poverty and Hult International Business School: http://community.businessfightspoverty.org/profiles/blogs/richard-gilbert-matt-gitsham-and-ashridge-centre-embedding-the

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