How do you measure progress towards the SDG’s?

Published on
October 25, 2018

Why is monitoring progress towards impact in a complex project or programme so important? And more specifically: how do you determine progress regarding the Sustainable Development Goals?

Achieving impact is one of the core objectives of the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. Understanding the important role of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) towards impact, we develop monitoring and evaluation during the design phase, so that we know how to prove progress and contribute to impact. How do you apply this to monitor SDG’s? We’ve summarised it below.

Why monitor progress towards SDG’s?

Three reasons:

1. In order to prove progress and be accountable

People talk a lot about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), but talking alone is not enough. Evidence is needed to show whether and where progress is actually being made. Different stakeholders involved in this process can hold each other accountable on the contribution they make towards the SDG’s, and in order to show that they act in a socially, economically and environmentally-responsible manner. Monitoring and evaluation contributes to this.

2. In order to improve: to learn, adapt and bring about change

Working on the SDG’s is a collaborative process of learning and engagement. Without partnership (SDG 17), we are unable to achieve the other SDG’s. Since these processes are complex and dynamic, we need to collaboratively learn from each other what is going well and what isn’t, why and how we can best build on successes and eliminates failures. This allows you to gradually adjust your strategy and adaptively manage towards achieving the SDGs. This in turn can boost the effectiveness and impact of your programme.

3. In order to prevent things getting worse

Actions for one sustainable target can undermine progress on another SDG. It is therefore important to also identify unexpected effects. Real-time monitoring and adapting strategies can help to prevent this kind of negative and possibly even dangerous side-effect.

How do you identify progress towards the SDG’s?

Whilst numerous indicators have been developed for the SDG’s, and an SDG Tracker helps to monitor progress towards the SDG’s, for different stakeholders engaged, you can keep in mind the following key ideas.

1. Establish, in collaboration with your stakeholders, your underlying thinking behind how change happens (theory of change):

  • Impact on: Food security? Employment? Health?
  • How: E.g. boosting agricultural production, stimulating soil improvement, or strengthening cooperatives?
  • With which interventions: With training, action research, other interventions?
  • Other influencing factors: policy environment, stakeholder coordination, climate change?

2. Identify, in collaboration with stakeholders, what you want to know at different levels?

  • At policy level: to what extent has the policy advice led to different decisions, resulting in new laws and regulations and affecting behaviour? Was this sustainable?
  • In the research: to what extent have publications contributed to innovation and improved insights, resulting in behaviour change? Was the research relevant?
  • In education: to what extent has the learning programme increased adequate knowledge and led to behaviour change? What else is needed to bring about behaviour change?
  • In the field: to what extent have the interventions improved the situation of the different stakeholders, the ultimate target groups and the food systems they are part of? Were the interventions effective? What were unexpected changes?

3. Gather evidence on cause and effect pathways

  • Look at changes in their underlying causes. Apart from checking indicators at impact level, you also need to check how this impact has come about and what are possible positive or negative unexpected effects.
  • Look at the context, because that context influences the interventions and changes. Which factors were enabling or hindering? For example, the climate zone, laws, standards and values or the political playing field. Was rainfall significantly different from what was expected, or has the political sphere become unstable? What kind of influence did that have on the interventions and on the expected changes?
  • Look at the process itself. Have all parties done what they had agreed? And did they do the right things in the right way?

4. Make sense of the findings and follow-up on decisions

In collaboration with stakeholders, make sense of the findings. What does this mean for us, and what action needs to be taken by whom? How can we change our strategy or theory of change towards improved impact?

5. Run through this cycle again

In short

  • In order to make informed decisions for the future, evidence is needed based on a continuous process of monitoring and evaluation during the lifetime of a project or programme;
  • Generating evidence for informed decision-making involves a process of reflection and dialogue with key stakeholders. This requires creating a safe learning environment for all those involved, where all stakeholders can share successes and mistakes and speak freely. This will enhance adaptive management towards improved impact;
  • Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation supports organisations, programmes and projects in improving strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation to ensure that even in complex situations change-oriented decision-making is based on evidence. We do this together with the staff of programmes and stakeholders involved.