Giving Compass' Take:

• John W. McArthur and Krista Rasmussen unpack the progress Canda has - and has not made - in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

• How can funders work to ensure that progress on the SDGs is equitable? 

• Learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals in 2019

Since their adoption at the United Nations (U.N.) in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have gained increasingly widespread traction as a normative policy framework. But what is the empirical relevance of the goals? A headline in the elite Economist newspaper once described the goals as ‘‘worse than useless,” criticizing the substantive breadth and rhetoric embedded across169 targets spanning 17 diverse policy realms. At the country level, it is not ex ante clear how useful the global political framework is for conducting empirical analysis relevant to the lives of real people. Our paper considers this question, with a special emphasis on the SDGs’ stated ambition of ‘‘no one left behind.”

There are many analytical challenges embedded in translating the SDGs from diplomatic text to quantitative assessment. The goals and targets touch on a wide array of topics and disciplines, each of which is anchored in its own norms of measurement and reporting, making it difficult to distill trends and gaps in a standardized manner across issues. Moreover, there is no overarching empirical logic guiding all the goals. Target ambitions range from the absolute universal elimination of one problem to a proportion-ate domestic reduction of another. Meanwhile, many targets are quantitatively ambiguous or focused on process ambitions ratherthan policy outcomes. Uncertainty regarding a target’s intrinsic empirical aspirations risks hindering that target’s efficacy in helping to stimulate improvements in policy action.

Our methodology addresses these challenges by producing a multistep analytical framework to translate the SDGs from aU.N. framework to a country-level diagnostic tool. Specifically, we consider three questions from the country-level perspective where sovereign policy decisions are made. First, which of the SDG targets lend themselves to quantitative assessment? Second, how can the information embodied in a vast range of SDG indicators be coherently synthesized to identify which issues are lagging? Third, how can such a diagnosis be interpreted in terms of absolute human consequences, measured by the number of people who will be left behind on each issue if the relevant target is not achieved? We then apply this framework to a case study of Canada, an economy not commonly examined in the context of global goals.

Our methodology uses a multi-step logic that aims to be applicable to any country and, subject to data availability, at the subnational level too. We attempt a ‘‘by-the-book” approach that follows the U.N.’s formal SDG architecture of goals, targets, and indicators as much as practical. In cases where the official U.N. language is quantitatively vague, we develop a logic of ‘‘proxy targets” to enable empirical assessment where viable. One value of this framework is that it allows a straightforward and transparent methodology for translating the normative aspirations of the SDGs into specific estimates of the consequences of falling short on the tar-gets. It also helps draw attention to population-specific data gaps and policy gaps. Whereas some studies have interpreted the SDGsas a scale for comparing progress across countries, our approach considers the extent to which the SDGs can be implemented as a tool for tracking progress within countries, relative to each society’s own needs on each issue.

Of the 169 SDG targets, we find that many, although not a majority, are useful for empirical assessment. Specifically, we classify 35 targets as directly outcome-focused, quantified, and measurable at the national level for all countries. Another two targets meet the same criteria for LDCs. We identify another 43 targets that are plausibly assessable across all countries through the use of ‘‘proxy” benchmarks and indicators. This yields a total of 78assessable SDG outcome targets at the country level. That slightly less than half the SDG targets are assessable at the country level forms something of a Rorschach test: some readers might see this as a cup half full of assessable targets; others might see it as a cup half empty of missed opportunities.

As a case study, we apply our methodology to Canada. In attempting to identify data sources to inform trajectory analysis, we are only able to identify relevant data for 61 targets, using 70indicators, of which 28 indicators can be directly sourced from the U.N. SDG Indicator Global Database. Although it might be reasonable to presume that Canada is close to a global upper bound in terms of SDG data availability, its indicators drawn from the U.N.database have similar availability across G-20 countries. But it is again a matter of interpretation as to whether 61 targets and 70indicators amount to large or small numbers in the SDG context. They represent less than a third of all SDG targets and indicators but still add up to several dozen measures of progress.

In the Canadian context, we find 18 indicators to be on track for success, 7 requiring acceleration, 33 requiring a breakthrough, and12 moving in the wrong direction. Overall, looking across our assessed indicators, Canada is only wholly on track for one of the first 16 SDGs: Goal 1 on poverty. Despite the country’s many notable successes, it exhibits a pattern of issues and population segments being consistently left behind. This type of trajectory analysis could help researchers and policy leaders identify priority areas for focusing attention on the need for change.