Friday, 08.03.2019

Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring SDGs

The SDGs ushered in a new era of ‘governance by indicators’ in global development.

50th Session of the United Nations Statistical Commission
Official Side Event: Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring SDGs

8 March 2019, 8:15 am – 9:30 am Conference Room 8, UNHQ New York

The SDGs did not fall from the sky. They resulted from hard fought battles over different visions, ideas and interests about the purpose and theories of development. These battles continue in the choice of indicators, and in the interpretation of goals and targets. Governance by data and indicators can alter meanings of social objectives, shift power relations, reorganize national and local priorities, create perverse incentives and create new narratives. This raises questions about the power of measurement tools to shape knowledge, the democratic governance of SDG indicators and of knowledge for development overall.

This event – co-organized by The New School, UNDP, University of Oslo Centre for Development and Environment, and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York office, in coordination with the Permanent Mission of Germany and Statistics South Africa – presented the findings of an international research project on the knowledge and politics that led to the formulation of SDGs, particularly the selection of indicators. The project undertook empirical case studies of 8 goals, and 2 studies of data challenges.

Overall, the project found that the open and transparent processes in the Open Working Group and Post-2015 agenda consultations challenged the MDG paradigm and set more transformative and ambitious goals. But across many goals, there was slippage in ambition when targets and indicators were selected. In some cases, this is due to genuine difficulty in defining a suitable indicator. In other cases, there is clearly a contestation about the agenda, and indicators are used to reorient or alter the meaning of the goal. The accounts of the negotiations included in this study – concerning inequality, sustainable agriculture, access to justice, education, and environment – show how the selection of an indicator, purportedly a technical matter, is highly political, though obscured behind the veil of an objective and technical choice. The papers also highlight how the increasing role of big data and other non-traditional sources of data is altering data production, dissemination and use, and fundamentally altering the epistemology of information and knowledge.

These finding raise questions about: “data for whom and for what?” in the way that SDG indicators are selected, and in how the process of selecting indicators can be safeguarded to remain neutral and technical.

Moderator: Serge Kapto, UNDP

Welcome Remarks:

  • Luise Rürup, Executive Director, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
  • Bernd Stoertzbach, Head of Division – Planning and Coordination, International Cooperation, Legal Matters Concerning Statistics, Federal Statistical Office, Germany
  • Risenga Maluleke, Statistician-General, Statistics South Africa


  • Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Director, Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs, The New School
  • Steve MacFeely, Head of Statistics and Information, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
  • Manjari Mahajan, Assistant Professor of International Affairs, The New School


  • Enrique Ordaz, Director General of Integration, Analysis and Research, National Institute of Statistics and Geography, Mexico
  • Francesca Perucci, Chief, Development Data and Outreach Branch, United Nations Statistics Division

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