How to get in the frame
First to take to the microphone was Ms Lana Assi of SAI Palestinian Authorities, who addressed delegates on the challenges of a state audit in Palestine.
Assi described universal challenges including the duration and high cost of data gathering, as well as challenges which she identified as specific to the region, such as political instability and relatively inconsistent statistical awareness.
“Where we had open data it was of course useful,” noted Assi, “but where there are deficiencies, data can also be an obstacle to the implementation of SDGs,” she said.
Assi went on to describe a methodology whereby the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, which is responsible for social, economic and environmental data, provided a baseline wherever possible.
Forms needed to be originated in order to collect administrative records. “Each ministry made its own plan,” said Assi, “which was then reviewed by the bureau of statistics. We gave recommendations so that we now have an integrated system that allows us to set relationships with the CSOs. Our meetings with them gave us the opportunity to see what the real problems were and how to handle them by giving accurate recommendations. This indeed stresses the importance of good cooperation with the statistical entities.”
The second speaker, Hermanus Rietveld from Statistics Netherlands shared his experiences of pioneering work in Dutch sustainable development monitoring, specifically the publication of the 2016 report entitled The Sustainable Development Goals: the situation for the Netherlands.
Covering 33% of SDG indicators, this baseline report was the first of its kind. “We really tried to make something that was value-added for other people,” said Rietveld. “We didn’t consider the report as a final product but rather as a jumping-off point.”
The experience has convinced Rietveld of the benefits of publishing. “The report became a basis for discussion as well as a template for other reports,” said Rietveld.
One year later, a second report, characterised by more involvement from external parties, was funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The question of external consultation was considered in dialogue with possible providers, and selection criteria for data and data holders included independency, quality assurance, validated methodology and clarity, according to Rietveld.
The evolved report included contributions from a wider variety of organisations including government ministries, government agencies, universities and research institutions and NGOs such as Pharos, the Dutch Centre of Expertise on Health Disparities. Rietveld reported that the inclusion of such stakeholders led his colleagues in the direction of new and hitherto unexplored indicators. Examples of these new indicators included water-use efficiency, in cooperation with the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water, and sexual violence, in cooperation with Rutgers, a sexuality research organisation.
Rietveld noted that, although broadly speaking the Dutch economy is thriving, a sizeable section of Dutch society remains struggling despite the good health of the economy. He was careful to point out the limitations of the report, stating that fully covering all indicators is neither practical nor possible and that ultimately not all indicators are relevant to the Netherlands, specifically those indicators relating to mountains and deserts. “There will remain a few indicators for which it’s just not worth the effort,” he concluded.
A third strand of the workshop invited delegates to identify core challenges and opportunities in relation to SDGs and data gathering. A major challenge identified by more than one attendee was the maintenance of data: “if you can’t maintain your land registry, then there’s no point collecting the data in the first place because it will be out of date within two months,” remarked one Ms Suzanne Valkman of the Kadaster, in the ensuing discussion.
Speaking from personal experience, Mr Keith de Jong from the General Audit Chamber of St Maarten addressed the limitations of physical data. The devastating category five hurricane that hit the island country in 2017 highlighted the vulnerability of paper documentation and had poignantly demonstrated the advantages of cloud-based storage.
Across the board, vulnerable groups remain hard to reach, but the mainstreaming of digital technology represents an opportunity in the sense that there are now so many potential sources of data. “Can we deploy citizens – more and more of whom have smartphones - as so-called armchair auditors?” asked Mr Mohamed Egafiz Nasr from SAI Sudan.
In conclusion, although there is ample room for future improvement and amendment of SDG measuring and monitoring in the Netherlands and abroad, it was agreed that every new challenge in this regard represents an opportunity to be grasped.