As discussions on the SDG indicators are under way in New York, David Satterthwaite asks where are the indicators that report on local needs and support local action in urban areas.

With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets agreed, now there is a need to work out how to measure and monitor progress.

While the UN Statistical Commission is reflecting on draft proposals this week in New York, there is a need to step back and consider what indicators are actually needed and at what level of government.

Every interest group has their own recommendations for indicators needed and most recommendations are made with little consideration of the capacity to collect data or the cost. But some targets need many indicators.

For instance, assessing who has “equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water” needs indicators on access (regularity of supply, distance and time to and from supply), safety (drinkable) and affordability (cost). And since most low-income urban dwellers rely on more than one source, such data are needed for each source they use.

Assessing who has “adequate and equitable” sanitation and paying “special attention to the needs of women and girls…” also requires many indicators. At present, most of these indicators are not collected.

There is also a confusion between indicators for national performance and indicators for local action. What does it serve to know the proportion of a nation’s territory that is public space? Or the national average in the time or distance to public transport? Or even the proportion of people with what the SDGs promise in regard to water and sanitation?

These are statistics needed for each locality. So we know the settlements (and streets) where conditions are particularly poor and where action is needed.

Similarly, averages for rural and urban areas for infant, child and maternal mortality rates don’t show where the problems are most acute.

Two issues need highlighting. The first is to clarify which indicators are needed at local level – with national statistics an aggregate of these. The second is how to make current data collection systems work better.

Local to national

The UN Statistical Commission report on SDG indicators (PDF) fails to distinguish between indicators that are valuable for national and state governments and indicators that are valuable (or essential) for local governments.

Since much of the responsibility for meeting many of the SDGs in urban areas falls to local governments, the measures being discussed at the UN Statistical Commission need to include local government indicator needs. The preparatory report sometimes mentions that an indicator must be disaggregated by geographic region – but this seems to think that disaggregating by rural and urban areas is enough.

The report also recommends that the indicators are “action-oriented” but they are too aggregated to point to the geographic location where action is needed.

A local lens is needed

These indicators, for example, need data for each local government area and sub-area (eg ward and street):

  • SDG 1: population covered by social protection systems and living in households with access to basic services
  • SDGs 2 and 3: indicators on under-nutrition and infant, child and maternal mortality
  • Most other indicators in SDG3: there is not much point in having a national figure for road traffic fatal injury deaths, for example. Figures should be available for each local government area to be useful
  • SDGs 4 and 5: most indicators for education and for achieving gender equality are most useful at local and ward government level
  • SDGs 6 and 7: there is little point in having averages for urban (and rural) populations for water, sanitation and electricity provision; data are needed for each local government area and street
  • SDG11: Indicators assessing who has access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services (including convenient access to public transport) are needed for each local government area/ward/neighbourhood; and for populations living in slums/informal settlements. Indicators of resilience are also needed for each locality
  • And similarly for many other indicators under SDGs 11, 12 and 16: including who has solid waste regularly collected, annual mean levels of fine particulate matter, share of built-up area that is open space for public use, level of waste recycling, violence/crime, proportion of people who feel safe…
  • SDG 13: the “number of countries that have formally communicated the establishment of integrated, low-carbon, climate resilient, disaster risk reduction strategies…” should also include the number of local governments to have done this. Here, national adaptation plans and policies should be providing frameworks and encouragement to local governments to act.

And why is there so little mention of local government and local civil society?

A question of capacity

The SDG recommendations stress the need for capacity building in statistics for national governments – but not for local governments.

Many cities are developing systems that provide relevant local data – and in some nations census authorities provide local governments with census data down to street or local area.

Brazil unusually has a Ministry of Cities that recognises how much Brazil’s performance on the SDGs depends on local government. It also recognises how strong local democracies can contribute to data on where action is most needed. In many Latin American nations, government statistics are recognised as a public good that should serve all citizens.

But perhaps the largest untapped capacity to collect relevant data is also the most unexpected – the very people whose needs the SDGs are meant to address.

Federations of slum/shack dwellers began undertaking detailed surveys and maps of their settlements during the 1990s – to provide the data needed for discussing their priorities and for working with local government. Although this preceded the SDGs by many years, the data they collect on conditions in their settlements covers many relevant areas. And this is data that supports local action.

In more than 30 nations, these federations are active – and have their own umbrella group, Slum/Shack Dwellers International that supports them. This includes a partnership with United Cities and Local Governments-Africa on ‘know your city‘ covering over 200 cities.

The city surveys this supports have the needed depth and detail for each settlement that is so rarely there – for instance on all relevant aspects of access to water for all sources used including community perceptions on what are the most pressing problems.

Now this is data worthy of and able to be a key part of the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III.

David Satterthwaite ( is a senior fellow in IIED’s Human Settlements Group.