Are Sustainable Development Indicators Still Mainstream

Most observers quote the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on Human Environment as the starting point of the sustainable development process, which had its outstanding events with the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development and the

Figure 5.7. Global picture: Sustainable development by country groups.

2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The indicators listed in this chapter were developed in the context of this process by experts convened by the UN CSD, and nominated by UN lead agencies and national governments. According to UN DESA,7 the UN CSD set is "the result of an intensive effort of collaboration between governments, international organizations, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations and individual experts."

However, the CSD set has never really taken off. In 1997, Eurostat (the Statistical Office of the European Communities) published a booklet with fifty-four CSD indicators, followed by a second edition in 2001.8 To my knowledge, these are the only international official publications based on the CSD set. Although the set represents a reasonable coverage of sustainable development themes, it faced stiff resistance from some member states of the G77 (the group of developing countries in the UN system), and at CSD-9 (the session dedicated to information for decision making) it was decided that the indicators should be used on a strictly voluntary, country-owned basis, a decision that was not conducive to a focused effort on increasing the quality and avail

Sustainable Development Index

Figure 5.8. Effective communication: The map of Africa.

ability of the data. However, it would be unfair to put the blame for the failure of this set on the developing countries; indeed, very few OECD states have tested the set, and no government adopted it in the end. Consequently, as of today, the only common indicators for OECD countries are still GDP growth, unemployment rates, and inflation.

The good news is that there is hope for developing countries: After the Millennium Summit, a set of forty-eight indicators related to the eight MDGs has been agreed upon by the main actors in development politics.9 The quality and availability of data for these indicators are not overwhelming, but they have quickly become popular: A Google search for the phrase "MDG indicators" yielded 544 effective hits in March 2006, compared with only 257 for "CSD indicators."10 Even more impressive is the availability of Excel tables for all MDG indicators on the Web sites of the United Nations Statistics Division, the UNDP, and the World Bank, a sign that the MDG set is being taken seriously by the UN system.

The bad news is that the MDG indicators, though enjoying a broad political legitimation, have two important gaps. First, the environmental pillar receives far too little attention (only eight indicators, compared to twenty in the CSD set). That is not enough even for a very crude description of environmental problems, and sooner or later this lack of detail must be addressed. The review of the MDGs in September 2005 would have been an excellent opportunity to launch this debate, especially for Goal 7, but this summit was overshadowed by debates on security and UN reform.11

Second, the fourth pillar of SD, institutions, is almost absent. There is no technical reason for this vacuum; there is abundant literature on governance indicators, and the World Bank site in particular offers data for a wide range of countries and indicators.

A more comprehensive indicator set could be constructed from three prominent sources: the UN CSD set, the forty-eight MDG indicators, and a governance index. The latter could be based on an index developed at the World Bank (widely known as KKZ, for its authors, Kauffman, Kraay, and Zoido-Lobaton), composed of six subindices called "Voice and Accountability," "Political Stability," "Government Effectiveness," "Regulatory Quality," "Rule of Law," and "Control of Corruption."

Rearranged according to the four-pillar model described in this chapter and cautiously reduced to a total of about sixty indicators, such a merged CSD—MDG—KKZ set would build on the most advanced global indicator processes and provide a complete picture for judging sustainable development at the level of UN member states.

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