Agreeing on a common monitoring and evaluation framework is an indispensable an next step towards realizing the Goals.

September 19, 2015 | By Daniele Giovannucci, President COSA

According to recent UN projections, by 2030 Earth will have 8.5 billion inhabitants. And while globally the rate of population growth is declining, the 49 least developed countries are expected to double in size between 2013 and 2030, a fact that will likely increase migration, strain existing systems and complicate efforts to combat poverty, reduce hunger, improve health, and increase education.

These demographic realities are the backdrop to the UN’s post-2015 development planning and are the basis of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals which are expected to be adopted by the General Assembly when it convenes September 25-27. Over the last two years, the UN has conducted the largest consultation process in its history with thousands of organizations and over one million individuals contributing to drafting the SDGs. The next indispensable step is to agree on a common monitoring and evaluation framework to ensure the Goals’ realization.

International Coffee Organization (India)

International Coffee Organization (India)

The fundamental importance of monitoring and evaluation may not be immediately obvious. Yet setting sensible and commonly defined indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals – in effect, creating a shared language by which countries can measure and track their progress – is critical in ensuring the credibility and reliability of the data collected and the process itself. Working collaboratively to set indicators and develop measurement systems is also an opportunity to build local capacity and design practical, holistic monitoring mechanisms that fit the community, geography, and challenge for which they are intended.

While the UN has begun a series of meetings to try and agree on monitoring frameworks, the indicators and accountabilities will not be in place before the SDGs come into effect on January 1, 2016. How then can countries, the UN, or indeed anyone track the SDGs’ progress? How can we manage what we cannot measure? How much progress will be lost toward the realization of the sustainable development goals themselves if commonly shared metrics elude us?

The UN would be well served by partnering with private sector organizations – a number of whom tackle (and track) sustainability issues on a daily basis – and by building capacity in local community organizations, many of whom are well-positioned to help measure, improve and adopt best practice along the way.

Take, for example, SDG 2 (sustainable agriculture). By 2030, SDG 2.3 aims to double the agricultural productivity and incomes of the world’s small-scale food producers who, according to the FAO, provide nearly 70% of the world’s food supply. If realized, this would revolutionize agricultural sustainability and significantly reduce extreme poverty and hunger. Yet we cannot accomplish it if we do not have baseline data against which we can measure progress and monitor in real time what needs to be done to remain on track. Why wait years to find out if we are moving in the right direction? Why not make changes in real time to improve the sustainability of agriculture en route to 2030? Why not enable farmers to make choices that are aligned with the SDGs and their own best interests?

Elderly Farmer on Road

The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, a 560,000 member organization of mostly small-scale farmers whose product is bought and sold by many large multi-nationals and is best known for its successful Juan Valdez brands, serves as an example. Realizing the need for improved sustainability, the Federation wanted to offer its members a practical way to  understand and measure the social, economic, and environmental components of their production which varied considerably among its diverse regions. Just as importantly, the Federation needed to identify how those sustainability indicators translated into actual farming practices and to respond to producers with locally relevant data on expected costs and benefits.

To do so, the Federation partnered with COSA – the Committee on Sustainability Assessment – a not-for-profit consortium of global partners dedicated to accelerating agricultural sustainability through robust monitoring and evaluation. Together, we set innovative monitoring and evaluation frameworks and trained a local Colombian research institution, Centro de Estudios Regionales Cafeteros y Empresariales (CRECE), to collect data and conduct impact assessments in different regions of the country. Five years on, not only has the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of coffee improved, but the Federation has used its own funds to track and analyze the agreed set of indicators. The Colombian model has since been successfully tested in a number of countries and is robust enough to be applied with other crops as well.

Undoubtedly, with mounting population and resource pressures, the challenge of sustainability – particularly in agriculture – is real and urgent. Yet by building local capacity, bridging the gap between the private sector and local farmers, and creating a common language to track results through robust monitoring and evaluation frameworks, progress is possible. COSA stands ready to contribute its experience, methodologies and insights and to join the coalition of public, private, and civil society institutions whose collective efforts will make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality.