SDGs are meant for poor people: let’s get them to say if they work!

by 23rd Sep 2015
Women at a community meeting Women at a community meeting

When it comes to monitoring impact, the SDGs have got it wrong. National Statistics Offices have a central role, but official data in developing countries is often incomplete, inadequate and unreliable. It cannot tell the full story, especially in countries where paper-based systems struggle to reach the very people the SDGs are meant to help.

What is not measured is invisible – how can we know whether the SDGs are working for poor people and getting their children to school or enabling women to deliver safely, if they can’t tell us? The UN called for a data revolution, but to make this real we need more than just better government surveys. We need a deeper transformation:

  • A change in the level – data needs to be collected at sub-national levels, where the wheel hits the ground and citizens access services;
  • A change in the actors – citizen-generated data needs to complement official statistics;
  • A change in the type of information collected – qualitative information based on users’ perceptions will help tell the full story of why services are not working, or of differences in the quality of services between geographical regions, rural and urban areas, and social classes.

Let’s not reinvent the wheel

To make citizen-generated data a reality, we don’t need to start from the scratch. Many NGOs and CSOs have a wealth of experience with participatory governance and social accountability.

‘Accountability’ is sometimes perceived as a too-threatening concept that touches political sensitivities around North-South power relations and the ability of a UN/Northern-dominated system to hold Southern countries accountable on progress against the SDGs.

SDGs are not mandatory, and in this framework participatory monitoring is a more acceptable concept. Ultimately, we are talking about applying social accountability approaches to the monitoring of the SDGs. Social accountability is attracting increasing attention and its impact is still under scrutiny. However, recent studies point to the effectiveness of these approaches to produce reliable citizen-generated information crucial to hold service providers to account and eventually improve the access and quality of public service delivery for poor people.

CARE’s experience on participatory monitoring

The UN led a consultation on SDG monitoring and implementation, and many NGOs and CSOs showcased their experience with well-tested participatory mechanisms as well as innovative models that use ICT to reach out to a larger number of citizens. CARE has a long track record in applying social accountability approaches, and contributed to this process by putting forward its pioneering work with community score cards (CSC), a model designed by CARE in Malawi in 2002 and since then taken up by a range of organisations in many countries and sectors.

The CSC process is a participatory mechanism that brings together service users and providers to score the quality of the services provided against a set of indicators. Scoring is done separately and then compared in an interface meeting bringing all the actors together in a non-threatening setting. During this open gathering, identified issues and possible solutions are discussed, and actions are agreed.

CARE has been applying CSC in many different countries, adapting the process to different context and sectors. A recent ODI paper looking at CARE’s application of CSC in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania showed that access and quality of services increases, that citizens feel more empowered and able to put forward their demands, and that overall trust between service users and providers improves.

An effective participatory monitoring system needs coordination and action

Up to now there has been a lot of talk about “why” participatory monitoring is important. That has been essential work to make the argument for an inclusive framework for monitoring the SDGs. Now it is time to start coordinating and setting up national, regional and global civil society platforms. No organisation can do it on its own – this needs to be a meeting of minds, experiences and actions.

Applying participatory monitoring at the local level is known territory, but setting up a participatory monitoring mechanism for the SDGs presents different challenges: 

  • increasing the coverage and scale-up at national level;
  • building the credibility of citizen-produced data;  
  • making it comparable and complementary to official statistics.

We might not be able to produce a complete shadow mechanism in each country, but setting up a sound civil society coordination mechanism at the national level is the first crucial step to start collecting and consolidating comparable information and produce representative civil society alternative reports.

The SDGs train is leaving the station and we need to make sure that citizens are on board and have a say on where the train is heading!

Gaia Gozzo

Gaia joined CARE International UK in 2006. With 15 years’ experience working in the NGO development sector, she has extensive experience in supporting governance programmatic work. She holds an MA in Governance at the Institute of Development Studies – Sussex University and she has a sound understanding of governance technical concepts and paradigms. She has wide experience in working with civil society organisations and in providing capacity building, especially around citizens’ empowerment and participation, social accountability, advocacy and political economy analysis. She has experience in the design of governance proposals and managing applied research, including a comparative research project led by the Overseas Development Institute looking at the influence of the local context on Community Score Cards in Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Malawi.