One of the most difficult issues facing the effective implementation of the SDG targets relating to social protection, comes down to what social protection actually entails and how overall progress is measured.

Social protection is a strategic tool that can be used to attain several SDGs simultaneously and generate spillover effects that go far beyond the initially stated goals. ~ UNDP World Centre for Sustainable Development

The importance of social protection in regard to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be overstated. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a total of 169 targets and 232 global indicators [1]. The success of several of the SDGs depends on the effective implementation of social protection policies and instruments by member states.

Goal 1, Target 3 calls for the implementation of, “nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable”.  Indeed, out of the 12 SDGs, four SDGs mention social protection policies or instruments as being vital in achieving SDGs and their targets.


The four SDGs that mention social protection in their goals or targets are [2]:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  • Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  • Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  • Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries.  


Measuring SDG progress

i.     Inter-agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators

The Inter-agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) was established by the United Nations Statistical Committee on March 2015, at its forty-sixth session to develop a global indicator framework [3]. On March 2017, the framework developed by the IAEG-SDGs was adopted by the General Assembly, as Resolution A/RES/71/313, Annex, also known as the Global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The IAEG-SDGs is also in charge of the politically tumultuous task of further proposing and refining the SDG indicators [4].


ii.     Custodian agency

Furthermore, each of the target’s indicators are monitored by a custodian agency and may include a partner agency. The custodian agency is “responsible for collecting data from national sources, providing the storyline for the annual global SDG progress report, providing and updating the indicator documentation, working on further methodological development, and contributing to statistical capacity building” [5].

The Food and Agricultural Organization, for example, is a custodian UN agency for 21 SDG indicators, across SDGs 2, 5, 6, 12, 14 and 15 [6]. Custodian agencies are also responsible for working alongside national governments to strengthen their monitoring and reporting capacities. There is no doubt that having the technical support, assets and capabilities of custodian agencies, such as FAO or the World Bank, is extremely invaluable however it does result in some issues. Different custodian agencies have different methodologies, different conceptualisation of what social protection concepts entail or even different approaches towards acquiring and handling data.


iii.     Member states

While custodian agencies and partner agencies play a crucial role in the oversight of the SDGs progress at a global level, it is member states themselves that hold overall responsibility for the implementation of the SDGs’ goals and targets at the national level. The national statistical institutes (NSIs) and systems, ministries and other national organisations or organs, are responsible for the dissemination of information, acquisition of data (i.e. surveys, census) and monitoring the progress of the SDGs.

Moreover, member states themselves are only required to share at least one national aggregate per indicator with the respective custodian agency. At the current moment NSIs, much like the custodian agencies, have no standardised approach towards the monitoring and implementation of the SDGs. One can only imagine the data quagmire and the complications that would result if hundreds of NSIs, all with different methodologies, gather data on 232 SDG or more indicators.


The SDG indicators

The SDGs’ indicators are structured in accordance with a three-tier classification system (Tiers I, II, III), based on their level of methodological development and standards and the availability of data at the global level. According to the IAEG-SDGs, there are 93 Tier I indicators, 72 Tier II indicators and 62 Tier III indicators. In addition, there are five indicators that have multiple tiers for an overall total of 232 SDG indicators across 17 Goals.


The tier classification criteria/definitions are:

Overall, only 50 of the 169 SDG targets are ready for progress assessment. Over half of the 230 indicators lack agreed measurement criteria (68) or sufficient data coverage (66) for regular monitoring or reporting or both. Global Policy Watch, Briefing #22 April 2018.

  • Tier 1: Indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, and data are regularly produced by countries for at least 50% of countries and of the population in every region where the indicator is relevant.
  • Tier 2: Indicator is conceptually clear, has an internationally established methodology and standards are available, but data are not regularly produced by countries.
  • Tier 3: No internationally established methodology or standards are yet available for the indicator, but methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested.


Disaggregating data

SDG Indicator 1.1.1 of Goal One for example, is a tier I indicator and measures the proportion of the population below the international poverty line in accordance with sex, age, employment status and geographical location (urban/rural). In the case of Indicator 1.1.1 a given population living below the international poverty line is what is being measured alongside disaggregated data of that population such as sex, age, employment status, etc.

The SDG indicators should, wherever possible or relevant, be disaggregated by “income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location, or other characteristics, in accordance with the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics” [7]. The disaggregation of data is important, as it allows for more detailed data and information and helps in the analysis of particular patterns or effects at the individual levels

It is also important in ensuring the ‘No One Left Behind’ policy in regards to the SDGs, which focuses on the most vulnerable of the global groups such as children and youth, persons with disabilities and the elderly, indigenous peoples, refugees and internally displaced persons [8]. These very same vulnerable global groups are often at times overlooked by social protection actions as well.


Revaluating social protection in light of the SDG indicators

First, definitions of social protection remain a major challenge and the subject of ongoing debate, as does the focus – in the majority of indicator frameworks reviewed – on inputs and outputs, with limited attention to quality of provision, outcomes or systems. ~ Indicators to measure Social Protection Performance, European Commission.

SDG challenges and social protection

The SDG indicators were from their very inception a compromise between technical realities and political conveniences. This is reflected in the fact that despite many attempts there still remains little standardisation among NSIs and custodian agencies in a large part due to political agendas by member states or the agencies themselves.

Moreover, the numerous issues currently facing the SDG indicators, ranging from lack of concise definitions, data gaps, a lack of a centralised database system for national statistical institutes, and differing methodologies among custodian agencies, must be address if any effective progress is to be made moving forward.

Lastly, social protection itself isn’t free of problems. Although, social protection has become a more popular approach to dealing with poverty and inequality, “73% of the world’s population are living without access to comprehensive social protection” [9]. Much remains to be done. There must be a strong consensus of how to go about creating more inclusive, cohesive, effective, and fiscally viable social protection programmes. A focus should exist on lessons learned from previous social protection programmes, including on ways of how to measure progress in social protection programmes outside of the traditional indicators.



Resolving the issues faced by social protection in relation to the SDGs will be an arduous task, one requiring further dialogue amongst a number of different national and international actors, vast amounts of political will, and above all, precious and limited time. Definitions, methodologies, and other data related challenges must be standardised in order to create an as efficient and effective system as possible.

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are a bold move towards improving the quality of life of all of humanity, therefore bold ideas and innovate perspectives will be required. Social protection can prove to be an invaluable tool in improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people, and through the SDGs, help create a more prosperous world.



[1] Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (2018). Tier Classification for Global SDG Indicators Accessible:

[2] Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (2017). Indicators to measure social protection performance: Implications for EC Programming, Brussels: EC. Accessible:

[3] Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (2017). Main Website. Accessible:

[4] Kate Anderson (2015). We have SDGs now, but how do we measure them?, The Brookings Institution. Accessible:

[5] United Nations Water. 2030 Agenda: Roles and responsibilities. Accessible:

[6] FAO (2017). FAO and the SDGs Indicators - Measuring up to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Accessible:

[7] Linda Hooper (2016). Leaving no one behind: Data disaggregation. Accessible: 

[8] United Nations Statistics Division Statistical (2016).  Leaving no one behind. Accessible:

[9] UNDP World Centre for Sustainable Development (RIO+ Centre) (2016). Social Protection for Sustainable Development: Dialogues between Africa and Brazil. Accessible:


Other References Mention or Cited:

OECD (2010). Glossary of Key Terms in Evaluation and Results Based Management. Accessible:

Barbara Adams and Karen Judd (2018). The Ups and Downs of Tiers: Measuring SDG Progress, Global Policy Watch. Accessible:

Roberto Bissio (2018).  SDG indicators: The forest is missing, Global Policy Watch. Accessible: