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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are relevant to all countries, whether high, middle or low income. With increasing attention to the SDGs, countries are progressively turning to data as a source to assess and validate the progress that they have made towards achieving them. Through many iterations of the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report and through ESCAP’s work with individual countries, it is clear that (i) no single country is achieving all the SDGs, (ii) all countries can benefit from assessing progress on the SDGs, and (iii) if countries use a mix of assessment approaches this will provide a more accurate picture of progress.

To simplify things, we can divide progress measures into two clusters, (i) those measuring the level of achievement and (ii) those measuring trends and rates of progress.

No single country is achieving all the SDGs

A common assumption may be that the countries with highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in the region should be among the best performers in terms of SDG progress, given that they have better capacities and resources available to advance the sustainable development agenda. However, data shows that it is not necessarily so. The countries with the highest GDP per capita in the region – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore – are lagging behind on many of the seventeen SDGs. Indeed the National SDG trends at the target and indicator level also show that some goals in these countries are not faring any better than the region’s average. The fairy tale of a single country is shattered. In its place, we see that each country can be a champion for some of the SDG targets whilst simultaneously lagging behind on others.

Lessons from the tortoise and the hare

For zero hunger (Goal 2), high-income countries such as Australia and Japan are indeed closer to achieving the 2030 target than the rest of the region. However, data also shows that these countries have largely remained stagnant in their progress toward this goal. Trend data shows that despite better than regional average status of food insecurity in Australia, this indicator is regressing. In Japan, despite being lower than the regional average, moderate or severe food insecurity in the population has increased by almost 50 per cent since 2015. Even where countries show initial achievements or advantages, there is a need to continuously monitor and look at current trends to ensure that emerging negative trends are detected early on for appropriate actions to be taken.

For quality education (Goal 4), we see that Bangladesh started with a lower level of achievement but was listed as one of the well-performing countries in the Asia and the Pacific SDG Progress Report 2023. At the target level, Bangladesh is a top performer in the region in terms of improving effective learning outcomes as well as adult literacy and numeracy. Such countries which are making good strides in their rate of progress need to ensure that such progress is maintained so they can move above the regional average and so they can meet the targets.

The ugly duckling: Unleashing the true potential

There are instances when the level of achievement is low, and the trends show a country is making little or no progress in achieving the targets. What happens then? Firstly, let’s recall that there is no one country achieving all the SDGs. Similarly, there is no one country making no progress on any of the SDGs. But for those countries which are off-track they will need to prioritize the targets which are most off-track and will need to work at speed to bring about a change in direction. An ugly duckling could flourish into a beautiful swan.

Regardless of a country’s level of achievement on a single goal, target or indicator, a combination of progress measures is required to take the right action. There are different ways to look at SDG progress, but whichever methods are used we need to be honest in our assessment. ESCAP offers complementary tools and products that could be used by countries to better assess SDG progress.

  • Data Explorer allows countries to explore the underlying data beyond the aggregated analysis shown in reports.
  • National SDG Trends provides countries with several dashboards that help in exploring the data trends and identifying priority areas for action. . 
  • National SDG Tracker offers countries a specific tool which they can customize to include their own SDG indicators and targets along with tools to assess SDG progress. ESCAP can also provide expertise to assist governments to implement this tool in assessing SDG progress in their countries.

We look forward to embarking on this voyage together to tell your country’s SDG data story!

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Patricia Wong Bi Yi
Associate Statistician
Statistics +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]
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