From 3-6 March 2020, METRO team member Marlee Tichenor attended the United Nations’ 51st Statistical Commission in New York, which is hosted by the UN Statistics Division. The meeting was one of the last UN large conventions held before the COVID-19 emergency led to the cancellation of most such gatherings across the globe. In this blog post, she reflects on the role of the Commission on the current global governance landscape.
The UN Statistical Commission has become one of the most important events and governing bodies in determining the shape of the international development landscape. Representatives of member states’ National Statistics Offices and of UN agencies’ statistical offices came together to discuss and debate decisions made about global standards of measuring various development statistics, data sources, and other key issues for statisticians working to promote international development. As one of the two most important gatherings of national and agency statisticians in the current era – the other being the annual UN World Data Forum – the UN Statistical Commission serves as the space where statistical leaders make official decisions about how to measure economic, social, environmental, and other indicators on national, regional, and global scales. In the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), most of these decisions revolve around how to measure and populate the SDGs’ current 231 unique tracer indicators showing progress on these 17 goals.
Of course, the UN Statistical Commission has a history that reaches back long before the SDGs or their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Commission’s first session (called the “Nuclear Session”) in 1946, soon after the creation of the United Nations itself, focused on the “vital substantive issues concerning the development of international statistics” (UNSC 1947). As the “apex entity of the global statistical system,” the Commission has served as the primary governing body for international and national statistical practices in the name of international development during its 74-year existence. However, many agree that the political importance of the Commission has grown in the 21st century. This is due to the increased power of the globally-agreed-upon methodologies validated by the Commission to measure development indicators in the current era.
This rise in political power was partly due to the structuring power of the MDGs in development circles, and the ways they shaped the current SDG era. Agreed on in 2000, the MDGs, along with a general movement toward performance-based funding in international development (e.g. Rottenburg et al. 2015), promoted the central role of quantified performance indicators in promoting specific initiatives. Nonetheless, whilst the value of statistical indicators in achieving results was highlighted, in preparing for the post-MDG era, many actors suggested that certain poorly chosen indicators had led to distorted results on development (e.g. Fukada-Parr et al. 2014). Thus, they required particular attention to determining and refining any such indicators in the future.
In order to address this problem within the SDG framework, the UN Statistical Commission established a member-state-led mechanism for building consensus around methodologies and data sources for a shifting number of indicators – currently 231 unique indicators – called the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDGs (IAEG-SDGs), in order ensure that member states agree on universally measurable and comprehensively representative indicators. IAEG-SDGs has met twice a year since its first meeting in June 2015 to assess and validate the proposed indicators. IAEG-SDGs is one of the many working groups whose findings the Commission deliberates, and this year, there were a handful of sticking points with the group’s most recent report.
A particularly contentious sticking point was about sustainable tourism, debate around which made clear that although it was asserted multiple times that the Commission is a space for technical rather than the political issues, a space of deliberation on development can hardly be removed from political influence. IAEG-SDGs had proposed the deletion of an indicator about employment to help measure countries’ investment and progress on sustainable tourism because it was a Tier III indicator – without an agreed upon and tested methodology and available data – and IAEG-SDGs had made it a priority to remove all Tier III indicators in its 2020 comprehensive review. Many country representatives raised their concerns about dropping the indicator altogether, as it was through employment that many countries aim to achieve the target of sustainable tourism, and its deletion would undoubtedly put obstacles into the process of refining the indicator in the future. In opposition to these country representatives were those asserting that the Commission itself was not the venue for refining indicators but only validating the reports provided. Most important was presenting a unified front as the world’s leading statistical body in support of the current framework and that individual countries be prepared to compromise in order to do it.
Of course, this debate about what can or cannot be included within the SDG indicator framework is not merely a technical question. In an era where, for example, the UN Secretary-General asks that all countries and UN agencies structure their development agendas around this framework, deleting an indicator on tourism employment can potentially impact what funding is available to countries receiving development aid and how they use such funding or domestic resources. It also can materially impact the performance of certain countries in showing investment and progress in, following this example, sustainable tourism. In the current era of indicator-driven development work, what is within the indicator framework does indeed have material effects on what programs or interventions are prioritized both on a national and a global level. The task of IAEG-SDGs of bringing together the UN member states to agree on how to measure key development goals is enormous, complicated, and work-intensive. However, it requires the political weight of the Commission to validate this work in order to create the codex on development in the current era: the SDG indicator framework. In this way, the UN Statistical Commission has potentially become the most important governing body in shaping the landscape of international development in the current era.
Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko, Alicia Ely Yamin, and Joshua Greenstein. ‘The Power of Numbers: A Critical Review of Millennium Development Goal Targets for Human Development and Human Rights’. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 15, no. 2–3 (3 July 2014): 105–17.
Rottenburg, Richard, Sally E. Merry, Sung-Joon Park, and Johanna Mugler. The World of Indicators: The Making of Governmental Knowledge through Quantification. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
UN Statistical Commission. Report of the 1st Session. New York: United Nations, 1947.