The use of nice-sounding jargon often serves the purpose – inadvertently one would hope – of obfuscating the real issue. The UN is far from immune from this practice. The Advisory Note on Follow-up and Review of the SDGs that advises member States to “optimize their national statistics systems” is a good case in point. Optimise for what purpose the reader may ask. Presumably for SDG reporting, given the context of the advisory note. If so, the advise is both wrong and harmful. With due respect to the importance of the SDGs, national statistical systems have a much broader and more long term objective. Their task is to meet the individual countries’ need for quantitative information in a wide range of areas, including demographic, economic and social development, employment, environment etc. To achieve this task requires a considerable institutional capacity as well as a long-term systematic approach to collection and generation of statistics and, not least, continuity in terms of what statistics are collected, how, when and use of terminology, definitions and classifications. Most developing countries are still in the process of building up this capacity and continuity. One of the main obstacles they face is the habit of international organisations and other external actors to use national statistical agencies as “consultancy firms” for specific purposes that may be seen as worthy, but which all have in common that they divert scarce resources of national statistical agencies away from their core function to ad hoc generation of statistical data for specific purposes, typically with little attention to continuity and general comparability. The SDGs are important, but with less than thirteen years to go, 2030 is around the corner and building national statistical capacity takes time and requires a long term perspective.
ECDG advocates a systems approach that includes not only building capacity to generate statistics, but also monitoring and evaluation. Indeed, national ownership over the country’s own development and accountability not only towards the UN, but more importantly to each country’s own citizens, requires nothing less. One would have hoped that more than twenty years down the road since the signing of the Paris declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 1995, such a systematic approach would be an undisputed sine que non. However, a systems approach needs to go beyond strengthening M&E as well as statistical capacity. It requires that SDG-related external assistance and demands become fully aligned to the national strategies and efforts to build domestic knowledge-building capacities that include generation of statistics as well as empirical analysis, M&E and dissemination information. If not, it risks becoming yet another international initiative that diverts and drains rather than strengthens scarce national institutional capacities.
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Dr. Ronnås is a development economist, recently retired after more than 30 years of academic and policy work in the fields of economic development, employment and inclusive growth. His career includes positions as Associate Professor at Stockholm School of Economics, Director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Chief Economist of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and senior employment and development specialist at the ILO in Geneva. He is currently working as an independent consultant as a partner of the Comprehensive Employment Research and Strategy Group (CERS).