Developing strategies to end hunger

A Revolution in Statistics: New U.N. Standards to Measure Sustainable Development

Hunger Report Monday

Late last week, the United Nations Statistics Division announced its adoption of a new integrated standard to measure progress toward the often elusive target of sustainable development. U.N. member states agreed to use the new System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) to improve and standardize reporting on the interrelationships among the economy, the environment, and society.

It is much harder to prevent problems that we can’t see coming, so quantifying what is “sustainable” is a key step toward preventing the increasing volatility of Earth’s climate from halting or reversing the past generation’s progress against hunger and malnutrition.

Sustainable development is the effort to ensure that all people have a decent standard of living without depleting Earth’s natural resources or endangering its ecosystems. Since 2000, we’ve heard about it most often in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). MDG 7, ensuring environmental sustainability, has gained a reputation as one of the most difficult to measure and compare across countries and regions. Despite its complexities, sustainable development has become a watchword as the world faces the threat of climate change.

Perhaps the most promising element of the SEEA is its potential to establish a standardized set of definitions and concepts that countries can use to guide their data collection, compilation and analysis. So far, very few indicators of sustainable development have been accepted across the developing world. There are even fewer that all countries are able to collect data for.

Physical flows of natural inputs, products and residualsThis figure from the SEEA central framework illustrates the direct and residual effects of physical goods flows between the economy and the environment.

The innovators of the SEEA claim that the majority of countries already collect most of the data required for it to work. The ingenuity is found in its ability to repurpose that data and integrate it in new ways to better measure the interrelationships among the environment, the economy, and society. U.N. DESA’s head, Alessandra Alfieri, called it a “revolution in statistics,” that will help policy makers better understand how a change in the environment can cause a change in the economy, and ultimately a change for poor and hungry people.

Chapter 1 of the 2013 Hunger Report emphasizes the need for more reliable and better integrated ways of collecting and analyzing data, not only on hunger and malnutrition, but on their causes (like climate):

When the MDGs were launched, it was clear that the capacity of developing countries to collect and analyze data had to improve…Overall, the capacity to obtain accurate data has improved since 2000, but in some countries, especially among the least developed, yawning gaps remain. Reliable data is the bedrock of effective policy interventions. Without rock-solid data, policymakers can’t know for sure whether their interventions actually address the fundamental reasons that people are poor. 

We will not end hunger if we do not shift toward more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. And we cannot separate our food systems from the management and preservation of our natural resources, from food security and from sustainable development itself. The SEEA is a crucial next step that adapts our data collection methods to that new reality.

Read more about data collection for sustainable development in the 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach: Global Development Goals. Also check out guest contributor, Jose Graziano’s article on achieving sustainable development, 'The Greener Revolution.' Derek Schwabe


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