United Nations System-Wide
July 1998

Indicator processes
The immediate future

The call of Agenda 21 for indicators of sustainable development led to a new wave of international action on the development of many kinds of indicators. The following brief summary of the present status of indicators work highlights where we are and where we need to go.

Most indicators, whether environmental, economic or social, are based on a specific data set or statistical series that measures some component, process or trend of interest. With a clear methodology and adequate data collection, these indicators can be quite useful for specific purposes. In the context of sound environmental management and sustainable development, such indicators are particularly good at measuring what is damaging or unsustainable, and thus indicating what needs to be reduced or minimized. It is much harder to define what is sustainable development, or what is the ideal environment or ecological balance, and thus positive indicators of progress towards these goals are difficult to identify.

Indicator processes

The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has adopted a work programme on indicators for use by countries in measuring their own progress towards sustainable development. An initial framework and list of some 130 indicators has been agreed, methodologies have been developed, and over 20 countries around the world are now testing these indicators on a pilot basis. Most countries that have progressed far enough in their evaluation have found about 50 indicators in the set relevant and applicable, and perhaps another 50 not in the list that also would be required to measure their sustainable development. It is clear that each country has specific environments and circumstances that require a different set of indicators. One important accomplishment of the CSD process is the general recognition that indicators will be useful in guiding countries towards more sustainable development, producing a growing demand for workable indicators.

The OECD, one of the pioneers in indicator work, has adopted a new focus on sustainable development, and is leading a number of processes among its member countries to extend indicator development and use, such as on agro-environmental indicators.

There are many other international initiatives, involving governments, international agencies and NGOs, to develop indicators for different sectors, such as forestry, health, fisheries, and biodiversity.

At the national level, in addition to the pilot testing countries in the CSD process, there are a considerable number of independent initiatives to develop relevant sets of national indicators, some quite elaborate.

At the local level as well, there are many projects to develop indicators relevant to sustainable development. Often the issues identified for indicators are quite different at each geographic scale.

Two additional processes worth mentioning are the SCOPE project on indicators of sustainable development, which reviewed many innovative new approaches and published a book last year on  Sustainability Indicators, and the Consultative Group on Sustainable Development Indicators, a small group of key experts with a secretariat at IISD that is developing approaches to highly aggregated indices and making some interesting conceptual breakthroughs.


The following are some of the challenges for indicator development in the immediate future:

- Indicators must be specific to environmental, economic and social conditions. For instance, indicators of sustainable land use will vary greatly between deserts, mountains, agricultural lands and tropical forests. How then can generalized and comparable indicator sets be developed?

- The multiple facets of complex environment/development problems require many indicators to assure experts that all critical factors are being followed, yet politicians keep calling for a few simple indicators of policy relevance.

- Even where indicators have been identified, the data to calculate them are seldom available. For example, in one well-studied area of Canada, 39 dimensions of sustainability were defined, and 130 necessary data sets were identified, but for only 11 were adequate data available to calculate the indicators. This data gap is often underestimated.

- For many indicators that would be desirable or even essential to understand sustainability, there are essentially no relevant data collected. In only a few cases are surrogate measures available. Whole new dimensions of human activity and of environmental characteristics need to be observed and monitored in order for them to be managed. Even the institutions to do this on a continuing operational basis are often lacking.

- Many environmental and social processes or impacts are not well understood, show random or chaotic behaviour, are subject to interference or interaction with other factors, or are otherwise unpredictable. It may thus not yet even be clear what is important or measurable with indicators to address a particular problem.

- It is a characteristic of complex systems that they may show higher order interactions or forms of behaviour that are not evident from a knowledge of the parts. Systems models will be required to understand and identify those large-scale systems parameters for which indicators should be developed.

The immediate future

The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) will review Information for Decision-making in 2001, and this is the target for the next version of the CSD recommended indicators set. It will be necessary to identify which indicators the pilot country experience has found useful and workable, and what gaps or alternatives they have identified. The many new indicators being developed can also be drawn on to fill in gaps. An acceptable framework and approaches for aggregation will also be necessary to reach the target of a few highly policy-relevant indicators. This will require both major scientific and political efforts over the next two years.

The international conventions and other multilateral environmental agreements also need indicators of country performance and of their overall effectiveness. This will require an intellectual exercise in each case to identify the most appropriate parameters for indicators, as well as a major data collection effort including a common methodology, capacity building, harmonization, quality control, and an assessment process. The Global Observing Systems with experience in this area could assist the conventions and their scientific advisory bodies to design and implement a supporting information system to generate the necessary indicators.

The UN Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) has called for an inventory of all indicators in the UN system. This will be a major effort led by the UN Statistics Division with the cooperation of other agencies. With the rapid evolution of indicators work, this inventory, if it is to be meaningful, will have to be continuously updated, and should involve many partners including some outside the UN whose work is highly relevant.

Countries are increasingly concerned about the burden of international reporting requirements. A well designed and integrated indicators programme will require some investment at the national level, but could simplify international reporting while also contributing to better national decision-making. This will only happen if there is a significant on-going effort to harmonize, simplify and integrate indicator activities.

More generally, despite significant successes in coordination of international indicator work by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and UNEP Earthwatch, much more could be done to cross-link and share experience among the many different indicator efforts, particularly at the national level. There even appear to be cases where the same country is involved in different international indicator programmes, but because each involves a different ministry, there is no coordination at the national level. There may be a need for more extensive information exchange, perhaps through an international indicators forum or similar meeting every few years, where governments, international agencies and NGO's could share their experiences.

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