Not everything we count counts, so said Albert Einstein. Photo: AP

JOHANNESBURG – Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Desmond McNeill, in a special issue titled Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring SDGs, will challenge statisticians on the question of truth and objectivity of measurement at the 50th UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) being held in New York next month.

The advent of global approaches to what is seen as global problems has raised questions of the relevance and appropriateness of local specificities. 

How the two contexts are woven in a meaningful way is extensively contested. 

This involves compromises, including in the use of language.  

In the game, content and contexts are diluted, erstwhile strong methodological lenses fade and only faint images emerge, and the demands to conclude tasks add significant pressure on those who are responsible for measurement.  

Statistical offices have been placed under tremendous pressure. 

At the high table of the global agenda, with the advent of the millennium development goals (MDGs), statisticians crept in through the back door. 

In the subsequent era of sustainable development goals (SDGs), statisticians are the real business in town and their oven for statistical measurement has reached melting point.  

The establishment of the UNSC in 1947 was to achieve universal standards for measurement to ensure macro-economic stability in countries and globally, and minimise the exigencies of war, which were driven by seismic macroeconomic instability.

That statisticians could be called upon to hold world peace is significant in its own right. 

Statisticians were called upon again post the 2008 financial and economic crisis to provide a system of statistics that would throw into the menu an early warning programme.  

To date some countries and notably, South Africa, for its own self-inflicted reasons have not been able to get out of the now 10-year onset of economic hardship.  

Measurement is a science that applies statistical tools in a way that would remain objective within a laboratory. 

However, human endeavour is messy and fraught with self-interest.  

Measurement can thus propel unintended consequences, but statisticians swear by objectivity. 

The call for the measurement of human rights concerns can be seen as disrupting statistical peace and objectivity. 

Not everything we count counts, so said Albert Einstein.

At this the 50th commission, the statisticians will come face-to-face with this challenging input of Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Desmond McNeill and Alicia Yamin. They raise contentious issues. 

These include the interface of knowledge and politics in setting and measuring the SDGs, as well as whether data is an ideology-free concept and product.  

The key question they raise is whether or not in order to achieve objectivity statisticians do not sanitise measurement extensively and fail to realise that the process is fraught with contexts that make self interest and conflict of interest an endemic risk of measurement. 

While they appreciate the object of measurement and indicators, they are wary about the attendant pressures on the irrelevance of tools of, and the aloofness of the agents of, measurement to the subject matter which constitutes the political economy of measurement.  

They lament other challenges that are not brought upfront and not laid on the table of human endeavour as typically a messy surgery of comprehending its anatomy. 

They recognise the limitations of the MDGs in their top-down approach and absence of consultation.  

They, however, acknowledge the extensive consultation on the SDGs, but recognise even then the potential effects of the lopsided power relations and time pressures and deadlines of brokering the SDG process.

The special issue helps to elicit gaps in knowledge, tools, contexts and more importantly advances the question of what defines objectivity. 

If objectivity means distance, then the measurement of MDGs was a venture into the unknown. 

If objectivity means distance then the SDGs represent an expedition of the Titanic into an iceberg.

This is a paraphrased version of commentary on Special Issue: Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring SDGs by Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa  and former Head of Statistics South Africa.