Sdgs – politics of measurement, localization and knowledge (2 of 2)

Fukuda-Parr, Sakiko (2019). 'SDGs - Politics of measurement, localization and knowledge (2 of 2)' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


While much of the literature on the SDGs asks 'how can the SDGs be implemented', this panel problematises the SDGs to ask 'how are the goals and targets being interpreted by the way they are measured and localised - and by whom and for what?' The SDGs did not fall from the sky. They resulted from hard fought battles over different visions, ideas and interests about the purpose and theories of development. And these battles did not end with the adoption of the SDGs. They continue in the way that the goals and targets are interpreted in the choice of the indicator, and in the way that they are interpreted in different local contexts.

This panel presents accounts of SDGs in two edited volumes that explored the politics of SDGs, focussing particularly on the politics in the selection of measurement tools (setting targets and indicators), and in localization. The first volume is a special issue of Global Policy Journal (Jan 2019) that incorporates 8 case studies of goals/themes, and two studies of data governance. The second is a special issue of the Journal of Human Rights and Capabiliteis (forthcoming) that focuses on the politics of localization. These volumes highlight some common themes in understanding the contestation behind the formulation of the SDG framework and their application in different local contexts.

First, data are political. As social scientists have long pointed out, governance by data and indicators can alter meanings of social objectives, shift power relations, reorganize national and local priorities, create perverse incentives and create new narratives. The choice of indicators in the SDG framework is critical in the way that the goals are interpreted and used to frame a development narrative and that ultimately guide policy making, public discourse and narratives. Measurement methods embed theories and values. Yet the politics are hidden behind the veil of technocratic decision making; while goals are intended to be set by political negotiations, indicators are said to be based entirely on technical consideration, and neutral with respect to values and social priorities.

Second, indicator choices are a process by which powerful actors can frame hegemonic discourses, thus reinforcing power hierarchies.

Third, the indicator framework is leading to slippage in the ambition and transformative potential of the SDGs. Across many goals and in different contexts, the indicators selected frame meaning in ways that remove concerns such as inequality, inequity, freedoms, or agency that are central to the capability and human rights approaches to development.

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