In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In doing so, member states signalled their commitment to collectively address global challenges in order to achieve peace and prosperity for all by 2030. There are no "easy" SDGs and achieving them requires that, as a global community, we aggressively pursue their implementation and monitor our progress throughout.
"Without evidence of where we stand now we cannot confidently chart our path forward in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals" 1 – António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
At the UN level, progress towards the SDGs is measured by Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), where governments report on their progress, against the UN’s global indicator framework.2 This framework is comprised of 232 indicators reviewed and developed by the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG), which is composed of representatives from member states. Essentially, governments help shape the framework against which they report on a voluntary basis.
In his foreword to the 2018 Sustainable Development Goals Report, UN Secretary- General António Guterres concluded that despite encouraging progress in some areas, "progress is insufficient to meet the [Sustainable Development] Agenda’s goals and targets by 2030." The measurement of progress towards certain SDGs remains hampered by the lack of reliable, timely, accessible, and disaggregated data.
In addition, there remain many challenges in the collection, processing, and analysis of comparable data across UN member states. For some SDGs, such as SDG 8.7, measurement is hampered by a more fundamental problem – the absence of indicators required for assessing progress.
The state of measurement of sustainable development goal 8.7
While the measurement issues faced by other SDGs also apply here, the measurement of progress to end modern slavery is prevented by the lack of clear indicators. As with other SDGs, 8.7 is ambitious in committing all nations to:
"Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms." 3
Currently, there is only one indicator for SDG 8.7 and that is the proportion and number of children aged 5 to 17 years engaged in child labour by sex and age. Some forms of modern slavery are covered under SDGs 5.3, which is dedicated to eliminating child, early, and forced marriage and 16.2, which seeks to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children. The indicators respectively measure the proportion of women aged 20 to 24 who were married before age 15 and before age 18, and the number of victims of human trafficking per 100,000 by sex, age, and form of exploitation.4 However, there are no indicators relating to forced labour, modern slavery, the worst forms of child labour, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The process of setting an indicator
The IAEG-SDG classifies each indicator into a three-tier system based on its level of methodological development and the availability of data at the global level. While initially classifying the sole indicator for SDG 8.7 at Tier 1, it was subsequently downgraded to Tier 2, reflecting a conclusion that data are not regularly produced by countries. The indicator for SDG 16.2 was similarly downgraded based on data availability.5
The downgrading means countries are not required to regularly report against these measurements, which prevents the establishment of a baseline and subsequent benchmarking, and hinders the official measurement of progress towards SDG 8.7 and related targets.
The IAEG-SDG’s 2020 Comprehensive Review will include consideration of the refinement, adjustment, deletion, or addition of indicators. The IAEG-SDG has indicated that additional indicators could be considered in exceptional cases where a crucial aspect of a target is not being monitored by current indicators or when a goal has very few Tier 1 or Tier 2 indicators.
Voluntary national reviews
In recent years, the usefulness of Voluntary National Reviews has been called into question. Despite noting an improvement in standards from earlier years, an assessment of the 46 VNRs submitted at the 2018 High-Level Political Forum found that fewer countries prepared an assessment of the SDGs in terms of policies or data that could inform the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.6 The assessment by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation also identified a lack of baselines from which to measure progress and found that information on data availability, including disaggregated data, was often unclear or not articulated.7
Reporting on SDG 8.7 – against the single indicator on child labour – is particularly weak. A recent report indicates only 25 of the 46 2018 VNRs reported on SDG 8.7 in some form.8 Two nations that have been active and committed to tackling modern slavery have considered themselves unable to report on the child labour indicator. Australia reported that it is unable to report on this indicator or the indicator on early marriage under SDG 5.3, due to there being no existing suitable data sources.9 Canada advised that its VNR did not report on SDG 8.7, noting that the child labour indicator is "not applicable in the Canadian context."10
In sum, the first two years of the Voluntary National Reviews have revealed serious limitations in the national reporting of progress to achieve SDG 8.7.
The way forward
In 2016, there were an estimated 40.3 million people in modern slavery. Without concerted action to tackle this serious issue, these individuals are in danger of being left behind. The action required should begin with the setting of clear indicators to measure the problem and our progress tackling it. With this in place, governments would be able to report systematically and consistently on their progress to eradicate all forms of modern slavery and be held accountable for their progress.
The 2020 IAEG-SDG Comprehensive Review of the SDG Indicators provides a possible opportunity for reform. However, this will only come to fruition if member states and national statistics offices begin to revitalise their data collection tools, in particular by using the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) guidelines concerning the measurement of forced labour.11
International agencies and partnerships also have a clear role to play. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda notes that, in order to strengthen the means of implementation of the SDGs, data from a country’s national statistical system should be supplemented with data from civil society.12 The involvement of multiple stakeholders in the process of data collection and the mobilisation of support through partnerships to strengthen national capacity are also emphasised by the 2018 Voluntary Review Synthesis.13
In the interim – while additional indicators are developed, support is given to national statistical offices, and partnerships are formed – it falls to civil society to provide the impetus to ensure countries are held accountable for their SDG commitments. The International Labour Organization and Minderoo Foundation’s Walk Free initiative (Walk Free), in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, have already contributed to SDG 8.7 by publishing the 2016 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, which aims to provide accurate and reliable data to raise awareness and enable policy makers to take strategic decisions based on evidence.14
In the absence of an official indicator, this new report, produced solely by Walk Free, provides a comprehensive and independent assessment of the measures taken by governments that contribute to eliminating modern slavery. It provides a platform for civil society to advocate reform agendas in individual countries and adds to other civil society efforts such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Delta 8.7, and many other NGOs trying to fill the gaps in official SDG measurements. Through the precise measurement of progress and identification of gaps in current responses to SDG 8.7, we can galvanise immediate and effective action towards the eradication of the most extreme forms of exploitation, and bring about the freedom of 40.3 million people in modern slavery.