The sustainable development goals are broken down to specific indicators. It is important to understand how each is measured and what contributes to the success of SDG programmes.


The sustainable development goals include a list of 169 targets. In July 2017, the United Nations General Assembly also approved the global indicator framework - a list of 232 indicators which are divided across the 17 goals and relate to their corresponding targets.

These form the backbone of monitoring the success of the SDGs. These indicators are meant to be used in two ways. First, they are management tools to help organisations and governments create implementation and monitoring strategies. Second, they will be used as a “report card” to check the success of progress. The framework includes indicators which are both quantitative and qualitative; often, both are required for the same indicator.

They are applicable on the local, national, regional and global levels and highlight the priorities for governments and others working towards the sustainable development goals. They will tell us if the programmes and policies are working and will measure whether or not the SDGs were a success when they are reviewed in 2030.

How do the targets and indicators measure the success of the SDGs?

The relationship between goals, targets and indicators is best illustrated using an example. Sustainable development goal one is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”. This is supported by seven targets and 12 indicators, including:

  • Target 1.1: By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day
    • Indicator 1.1.1: Proportion of population below the international poverty line, by sex, age, employment status and geographical location (urban/rural)
  • Target 1.2: By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions
    • Indicator 1.2.1: Proportion of population living below the national poverty line, by sex and age
    • Indicator 1.2.2: Proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions
  • Target 1.3: Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable
    • Indicator 1.3.1: Proportion of population covered by social protection floors/systems, by sex, distinguishing children, unemployed persons, older persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women,  newborns, work injury, victims and the poor and the vulnerable

As above, targets are normally measurable (“all people”, “at least by half”, “for all”), although some language used is open to interpretation (“substantial coverage”). Indicators then show the measurement by which those targets can be judged a success or failure.

The targets and indicators are measured on a national level, not just international. This allows room for differences between countries. Although target 1.1 refers to extreme poverty, currently measured as $1.25 a day, target 1.2 focuses on “national definitions”. Switzerland and Kenya have very different national definitions of poverty but, under the targets for SDG 1, both are encouraged to half the proportion of people affected.


Measuring progress: The challenge of data collection

Data collection can be a difficult task, which all NGOs are familiar with. This is even more challenging when we are not measuring change within communities, but within countries, regions and across the world.

The Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IEAG-SDGs), which created the global indicator framework, had a difficult task. Do we only choose indicators with well-established methodologies, meaning some of the targets are not credibly covered, or do we choose indicators for every target, meaning some have no established methodologies and insufficient international use?

They chose the latter which means that data for some of the SDG indicators is easy to collect, with well-established and proven methodologies. For others, however, it is less straightforward. To help plan next steps, the IEAG-SDGs divided the indicators into three categories:

  • Tier 1: Indicators with easy to find data and clear and established methodologies
  • Tier 2: Indicators with clear and established methodologies but the data might be difficult to find as it is not regularly produced by all countries
  • Tier 3: Internationally established methodologies or standards are not yet available for the indicator but the methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested

This categorisation shows what can be easily collected and where the gaps are, which in turn supports data collection planning. The priority for tier 1 indicators is to continue current data collection efforts; rolling out established methodologies more widely takes precedence for tier 2; tier 3 indicators need comprehensive work plans, in some cases to establish new technologies and data collection methods.


Grouping the indicators by topic

  1. People: This is the biggest indicator group, including 93 indicators (40.6% of the total). They relate to the status and wellbeing of human beings, for example unemployment rates.
  2. Money: This includes 60 indicators (26.2 % of the total), with most measurements given in US dollars. This group examines different types of monetary flows, for example government spending on poverty reduction programmes.
  3. Plans and policies: With 38 indicators, (about 16.7% of the total), this is the third group. The indicators examine how policies, regulations and laws are affecting the implementation and success of sustainable development goals. Examples include “Whether or not legal frameworks are in place to promote, enforce and monitor equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex” (indicator 5.1.1)
  4. Production and consumption: Including 20 indicators (8.7% of the total), this group refers to indicators measuring the flow of material and energy in the global economy. It looks at aspects such as material footprint and modes of transport.
  5. Planet: This category consists of 18 indicators (7.9% of the total). They measure the earth’s physical systems, such as water levels, forest loss and agriculture.
The Commonwealth


This section was developed in partnership with the Commonwealth.