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Sustainable Development Goals: two years in, we need the right incentives

Written by Soumya Chattopadhyay


Two years ago, the United Nations unanimously adopted ‘a bold new global agenda to end poverty by 2030 and pursue a sustainable future’. This 15-year development agenda set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) spanning 169 targets monitored by 244 indicators – a challenging task that can only be achieved with extensive and intensive use of data. On its second anniversary, what steps can be taken to ease the delivery of this data-driven development agenda?

The problem of missing objectives

In a series of ‘Leave No One Behind’ country stocktakes, we found data systems being introduced to digitise administrative record-keeping. These have the potential to transform data into actionable information, improve accuracy of reporting, and make it easier for administrators to share data. These improvements can lead to more timely interventions but, in practice, we found systems falling short of their promise.

Many of the most left behind are not represented in the data because they are not, for example, accessing health services or education. Often, access to entire databases is available only to top administrators – with some treating this access as a privilege of rank rather than a responsibility. When data is being captured and shared appropriately, many officials are reluctant to report weak performance for fear of negatively affecting their own position or agenda.

These problems can be partly attributed to a problem of missing or misaligned objectives. Borrowing from the literature of industrial organisation, we should devise properly aligned incentives. These would motivate development stakeholders to promote, in their decision making, not only self-interest but also collective social interest. Five simple steps could be taken.

Set explicit performance rewards for administrators

Budgetary incentives should be offered that reward data gathering from and service delivery to remote locations and communities. This may improve the identification of marginal groups and the correct prioritisation of service delivery.

Encourage competition among local service providers

Typically, more gains are seen by underserved communities when they are supplied with new services, than when their existing services are improved. The provision of new services should be prioritised and, once successfully established focus can be shifted to improving efficiency. Local providers should be incentivised to compete to provide new services where they are needed.

Finance collaborations between the public sector and private or civil society

Where data gaps exist, this could include funding the incorporation of private sources of data into national statistical databases.

Uncover baseline levels of service delivery

This can lower inhibitions felt by those unwilling to share data because they are concerned that low standards will reflect poorly on them; rewarding improvements above a known baseline might encourage poorly performing locations to report accurately because it is easier to achieve gains in the future.

Make funding contingent on process improvements

As a condition of concessional financing and when devising data systems, require data sharing, transparency, and cooperation between national and international stakeholders.

Improvements are possible

Examples of active collaboration, and well-aligned incentives do exist. In Ghana, the Ministry of Health and Oxfam Ghana resolved their differences in data methodology to arrive at a more robust metric for measuring the malnourished population and, as a result, were able to make progress in tackling malnutrition. Similarly, public health services in certain regions have partnered with non-profit and religious groups to complement health services and share public health budget – this has prevented duplication of effort, saved precious resources and created opportunities through allocative efficiency.

Despite the obvious benefits arising from aligning incentives among stakeholders my concern is that such instances are sporadic and mostly driven by select individuals. The prospects for sustainably achieving the SDGs will improve if policy-makers make conscious efforts to systematically fill the incentives gap.