How to measure progress on the SDGs


How to measure progress on the SDGs

Published on
July 3, 2018

How are we going to measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals? This is one of the four themes of the Wageningen University & Research SDG-conference of 30-31 August in Wageningen on SDGs 2 and 17, Zero Hunger and Partnerships. Simone van Vugt of Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation and a member of the organizing committee, explains the importance of monitoring and evaluation, and how to proof impact.

The Netherlands has committed itself to the Sustainable Development Goals. This means that on monitoring and impact assessment a lot of work has to be done. That is why it is one of the themes of the first WUR SDG conference 'Towards Zero Hunger: Partnerships for Impact', next to governance, synergies, trade-offs and the pathways of transformative change.

Impact at different levels

Achieving direct impact is at the core business of Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. ‘Impact can be achieved at different levels’, Simone van Vugt explains. ‘At policy levels, in research, in education and in the field. Or put more simply: did the policy advice lead to different decision making, did research publications add to innovation and better insights, did education contribute to improved knowledge and a change of behaviour and did the activities improve the situation of people and the food systems they are part of?’

The right track

It is necessary to look for evidence to proof the impact, for three reasons. One, people talk a lot about reaching the SDGs, but talking alone does not do the trick. Proof is necessary to show whether progress is being made. Two, you might need to adjust your strategy. ‘En route, checks on whether the right track is followed to achieve the target are necessary. Skipping means taken the risk of messing about’, Van Vugt explains. ‘This is also necessary as actions on one SDG might undermine progress at another SDG. Real time monitoring thus helps to prevent negative or even dangerous effects.’

A third reason to look for proof of impact, is that it improves accountability of the partners involved. ‘Working on SDGs takes partnerships between the four partners in the diamond: government, private sector, knowledge institutes and public organisations. They do not know the right answer on forehand, they need each other to find it. Working on SDGs is a learning process. But all partners in the process have to stay social, economical and environmental responsible along the way. That is where monitoring comes in.’

Beyond indicators

Having clarified the importance of monitoring, Van Vugt explains what to consider when looking for evidence for impact on one or more impact levels. First of all, there is much more to it than looking at indicators, she explains. ‘Ticking of indicators like income rise, more children attending school or improved accessibility, affordability and quality of food for each group is only part of measuring the impact. Open mindedness for unexpected effects is necessary too.’

Further, the context needs consideration, as it affects the intervention, Van Vugt continues. This means for example the climate zone, the laws, norms and values or the political playing field. What if rainfall has not been as expected or politics had not become unstable?’

Reflection and dialoguing process

A third aspect of collecting evidence is looking at the process itself: did all parties act as agreed upon? And did they do the right thing, in the right manner? In line with this, is the fourth aspect: was the right partnership created? ‘Concluding, evidence gathering turns out to be a reflection and dialoguing process. Looking back or looking at the current state is necessary to be able to look upfront.’

This requires a safe environment for reflection and dialogue of all stakeholders involved, Van Vugt stresses. ‘All participants must be able to speak openly.’ This ultimately leads to the next phase: taking action based on the evidence. ‘What can we change in order to improve our strategies and with whom?’, Van Vugt exemplifies.


For WUR itself this importance of evidence also has implications. ‘We should also systematically organise this monitoring and impact assessment for our work’, states Van Vugt, ‘as well as recognise the different impact levels.’ Next, WUR could set the agenda more. ‘We should also keep asking ourselves: how does my work contribute to the SDGs, for example better food. This accounts for research and value creation as well as for our education, where being accountable on SDGs should become part of the learning objectives.’