Statisticians who manage national statistics’ offices are becoming increasingly important assets to their countries. File Photo: IOL
Statisticians who manage national statistics’ offices are becoming increasingly important assets to their countries. File Photo: IOL

How far have statisticians come on the measurement journey?

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Oct 24, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG – Statisticians who manage national statistics’ offices are becoming increasingly important assets to their countries. 

Statisticians have been working via the the Inter-agency and Expert Group (IAEG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) to develop and implement the global indicator framework for the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda.

These groups decide which indicators meet the quality criterion to measure SDGs.

This week statisticians are convening in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where it is expected that the basket of indicators that meet the measurement criterion will pass the test, which will lead to an expansion of the indicators that are measurable to eventually reach 302.

This process started in 2015 where the UN Statistical Commission created the IAEG-SDGs, setting out the goals and target.

A parallel stream of work was parcelled out in 2014 to statisticians who would discuss which goals and targets lent themselves to measurement.

Their assessment in 2014 and 2015, showed that only a third of the indicators, which were 302 in number to measure the SDGs, met the criterion of methodological rigour and had statistics that could report on the target.

Statisticians then had to find a method to ensure that the 302 indicators measuring 164 targets could be measurable.

The statisticians then emerged with a three-tier system of indicators.

First, it was about which indicators met the quality criteria of methodology and availability of data. These came to about a third.

Second, it was indicators where methodology existed but there was no data yet for measuring the indicators. These also accounted for about a third.

The remaining third had no established methodology nor data.

That being the case, the approach was that over a period of time there would be a systematic ascension of measurable indicators based on as and when they could meet the quality criterion for right of passage.

This condition has created a flurry of activity around “lowly” bean counters.Statisticians suddenly became the most important personalities in town.

The statisticians from the beginning pointed out to the measurement weaknesses and challenges that the political process of SDGs ushered.

But the SDGs were better managed compared to the Millennium Development Goals whereby statisticians had an imposition of measurement made on them at the end of the process.

This time, although it was in parallel, at least they were forewarned. I recall in 2014, I was hauled into a meeting of the Group of 77 and China to address them on the progress we, as bean counters, were making towards the measurement of the SDGs.

Ambassador Kingsley Mmamabolo, South Africa’s representative to the Permanent Mission of the UN, had to report back to this group and had to rely on South Africa’s statisticians to present the facts.

I had previously pointed out to Mmamabolo the difficulties statisticians were facing with regard to the measurement of the indicators and that the approach should be adaptive rather than technical, because the latter would push us on a race to the bottom.

But I had had the benefit of having worked with Jacqueline McGlade, the chief scientist of the UN Environment Programme, where they had developed a sophisticated process that connected the indicators based on an ontological approach.

In 2015 I was invited to address an open group meeting in New York, US, by His Excellency Machaira Kamau of Kenya, who was the convener of the open group and a representative of the permanent mission of Kenya.

At the meeting, I expressed the concerns and the nature of the difficulties that statisticians were facing with the measurement of SDGs, as well as the adaptation strategies we were deploying.

Kamau was dissatisfied with the presentation.

At the hosting of the first World Data Forum, which Statistics SA hosted in Cape Town in January 2017, I reminisced with Kamau on the rise in importance of statisticians and the tough task of delivering on measurement.

This week in Addis Abba, as the process unfolds and continues to witness the attempts to measure all the indicators, it demonstrates how far statisticians have come on the measurement journey and the lessons learnt.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him on and @PaliLehohla.


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