Assessments with Indicators

Sampling of the principal integrated assessments at the international level illustrates the different ways indicators are being used today and the significant progress that has been made in the last decade. In most cases, the indicators are illustrative, providing numerical and graphical support to reinforce a text-based assessment. Generally such indicators are used only where good data are available, and many parts of the assessment may have little or no indicator support for this reason. Some assessments have been prepared by a one-off process producing a single report, and indicators for these are limited to the data available at the time. Other continuing assessment processes generate periodic reports. Where efforts are being made to build comprehensive and comparable global data sets as part of the assessment process, the number of indicators used in such reports is increasing.

The problem is that there are few compilers of globally consistent data sets or indicators, including the United Nations and its agencies (e.g., the Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], World Health Organization, World Meteorological Organization), the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for its member countries, and a few national or nongovernment institutes (e.g., The Netherlands National Institute of Public Health and Environment, World Resources Institute).

A good illustration of the challenges of using indicators is the UNEP Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report series of integrated assessments. The first GEO report in 1997 (UNEP 1997) was largely qualitative in its assessments. Even illustrative data tables were limited to selected countries. The only use of a few indicators was in the scenarios giving some projections to 2050, which looked at regional changes in population, gross domestic product (GDP), primary energy consumption, energy intensity, agricultural production (maize), caloric intake, total water withdrawal, changes in land use and cover, and habitat loss. By GEO 2000 (UNEP 2000), some indicators were given at the global and regional levels for the assessment of selected problems. In addition to the indicators used in GEO 1, these included cropland per capita, hunger, forest area, fishery production, carbon emissions, toxic waste, and urbanization. Many of these indicators were produced by one-off studies and did not present time series or trends. By GEO 3 (UNEP 2002), the effort to develop the data necessary for globally consistent indicators for assessments began to show results. Nearly every page includes text and one or more indicator tables or graphics showing states or trends. However, the indicators used still measure specific problems or social or economic trends and do not attempt an integrated view of system behavior. The indicators are not really the tools for the assessment but illustrations with a function similar to photographs.

Other international assessments suffer from similar handicaps. The Global Outlook 2000 (UN 1990) assembled chapters on various economic, social, and environmental trends illustrated with graphs and tables of selected indicators but with no integration across the sectors. Most global assessments follow the general model of the World Bank (2004) World Development Report with text-based assessments illustrated with a few indicators in graphs or tables, followed by tables of world development indicators by country. Such extensive data tables are useful for experts and have helped support many other assessment processes. They inspire confidence in the preceding assessment by emphasizing its quantitative scientific basis. However, they have little direct public impact, showing that too much numerical information without a framework to provide coherence and orientation has no meaning (Gadrey and Jany-Catrice 2003). The long history of economic indicators has allowed highly integrated indices such as the GDP to evolve, but there has been little effort to integrate beyond the economic sphere.

Even the assembly of such data tables suffers from serious problems of data gaps and inconsistencies, which make the production of indicators with sufficient consistency to permit integration a time-consuming and costly process even where it is possible. Few organizations can afford to do this, and once such data are made available, they are often endlessly and sometimes uncritically recycled from assessment to assessment.

The World Resources reports (UNDP, UNEP, World Bank, and World Resources Institute 2003), issued every 2 years, are among the most data- and indicator-rich global assessments, with analytical text and selected indicators combined with extensive data tables. Like the UNDP Human Development reports, each report develops a specific theme with data and indicators relevant to that theme. However, the data tables are relegated to the end of the report, and, if anything, the use of indicators has declined in recent years in favor of other forms of graphic communication and summary text. The UN Division for Sustainable Development prepared a Critical Trends report for the 5-year review ofAgenda 21 (UN DPCSD 1997). Although it surveys the long-

term trends in selected environmental and socioeconomic issues illustrated with appropriate indicators, it does not integrate them in any systematic way.

The report Protecting Our Planet, Securing Our Future (UNEP, NASA, and World Bank 1998) was a one-off attempt to identify and integrate the key scientific and policy links between major global environmental issues and between these issues and basic human needs. It uses a selection of indicators to show present environmental impacts and projected future trends, but again these are illustrative rather than the basis for integration.

Another approach is to build an assessment around important statistical trends, with a compiled index of several indicators as the central theme and attraction of the assessment, amplified by additional text, indicators, and data tables. The best example is UNDP's annual Human Development Report (UNDP 2004), which aims to get countries to focus on key issues of human development. The report makes headlines and attracts high-level political attention because it ranks countries with its Human Development Index (HDI). This simple index, combining only a few basic statistics (life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, GDP per capita), was initially quite controversial but has had great impact. It is significant more as a communication tool to motivate countries to reexamine the impact of development on people rather than a truly integrated measure of sustainable development. It attracts people to read the report and to consider the other data tables and thematic analyses that amplify the basic message (Sen 1999). The annual thematic assessments provide an integrated view of key human development issues, but again the indicators are used just to support the text. They are illustrative rather than tools in themselves for integration.

These examples show a pattern of increasing use from scattered illustrations to an index as the flagship of the assessment, but the indicators still play only a supporting role rather than defining the behavior and sustainability of the human—environment system.

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