Supporting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda

The process of defining indicators is setting out some foundational ideas for political decisions and institutional innovations

The process of defining indicators is setting out some foundational ideas for political decisions and institutional innovations

Emerging lessons from South Africa’s Indicator Development Process for the National Development Plan

On September 25, 2015, Governments agreed a new ambitious and transformative sustainable development agenda - comprising a set of 17 goals, based on 169 targets. Dubbed ‘The 2030 agenda for sustainable development’ (the 2030 Agenda) this new consensus will guide development interventions for the next fifteen years. Since then, questions have arisen on what the goals mean for domestic policy and whether they will, in light of the success / failure of the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), make a difference. Furthermore, questions have arisen on how to measure progress and success.

Agreeing a global set of goals is one thing. Implementing them is another. There are difficulties related to the extent to which the 2030 Agenda aligns with existing national development priorities. Then, there are difficulties related to monitoring and measuring progress through to those associated with the financing of the interventions. Although we are in the early stages of the 2030 Agenda, important lessons that could inform the implementation of the 2030 Agenda are emerging from the experiences of those countries that are consolidating their national development plans and aligning them with the 2030 Agenda. This case study outlines some of the lessons emerging from South Africa (SA).

South Africa’s National Development Plan and Environmental Indices

The 2030 Agenda comes at a fortuitous moment for South Africa’s national development planning and the evolution of its environmental sustainability agenda. In 2014, South Africa adopted its National Development Plan (NDP) “Our Future: Make it Work” with a vision statement, “that by 2030, South Africa’s transition to an environmentally sustainable, climate-change resilient, low-carbon economy and just society will be well underway”. Clearly, SA’s NDP is in many ways suitably coherent and aligned with the international 2030 Agenda. The NDP is coordinated by the Office of the President (The Presidency) and implemented through line ministries (called Departments). Chapter 5 of the NDP not only places environmental sustainability as a key thematic area in its own right, but also as an important underpinning for other thematic social and economic objectives.

In early 2015, the SA Government’s Department for Environmental Affairs (DEA) embarked on a multi-stakeholder consultation process designed to guide the creation of a small number of integrated environmental indices. These national indices will be composites of relevant measures of the environment, and will be used to monitor and report achievement of the NDP. To support this work, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) has been invited to provide technical and capacity support for arriving at these ‘composite’ indices and build capacity to calculate and interpret such indices.

Lessons-to-date in developing National Environmental Indices

1. Domestication and Alignment of 2030 Agendawith National Development Processes

The success of the global 2030 Agenda depends on the extent to which the goals and targets find expression in domestic policy and processes. In South Africa, its NDP process has set the stage for its local domestication of the global and aspirational goals and targets. Similarly, many countries have, or are preparing national development plans – which may be in some cases aligned with the global 2030 Agenda. Monitoring progress towards successful outcomes of such national plans is likely to be closely aligned to national reporting on the global sustainable development goals. National reporting will involve the use of indicators and indices, which preferably will be correlated with the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) indicator framework. When the production of indicators is combined with the expected sustainable development Data Revolution, in increasing production and availability of data, this will be a powerful basis for implementation, follow-up, and review of the new 2030 Agenda. An important lesson from South Africa is therefore the need to seek alignment of any existing domestic development planning and reporting processes with the 2030 Agenda as soon as possible.

Also, in South Africa, this indicator development process is taking place before any national Sustainable Development Goals that respond to the global Goals are decided and adopted. Nonetheless, the global Goals and Targets are strongly influencing and informing the ultimate choice of indices. And that is probably the reality for most countries. A brief analysis showed that the proposed SA environmental indices related directly to 8 of the 17 SDGs, and if they were coupled with other social and economic indicators, this number could rise significantly. Thus the work being done in South Africa is in no way decoupled and disjointed from the work that will be required for implementing the 2030 Agenda, but rather will ensure, through the availability of a succinct set of environmental indices, that the environment can be accorded the appropriate level of importance within national reporting processes.

2. Monitoring and Reporting Framework is Key to Success

For many countries, monitoring and reporting will be a demanding aspect of implementing the 2030 Agenda and therefore, the need to align existing processes and avoid duplication is paramount. The monitoring and evaluation system that accompanies the SA NDP will be crucial to guiding its implementation. The NDP is being implemented in three five-year phases, with the 2014-2019 Phase containing Outcomes, Actions and Indicators for monitoring the implementation of the Actions. Some impact indicators for the NDP have been proposed, and a few composite indices of the state of the environment are also proposed.

These indices that are being developed will not by themselves inform directly on whether sustainable development has been ‘achieved’. Rather, it is these indicators, when presented and analysed together with data on economic and social issues, which can tell whether the country is on track to reaching its vision, and, ultimately the national implementation of the global agenda.

Compound indices have long been used to summarise economic and social progress – for example, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or the Human Development Index (HDI). However, without possessing similar indices for the environmental aspects, the third pillar of development will not be adequately taken into account. Recognising this, the South African Government is pushing to lead the way in the development of such indices.

Within the 2030 Agenda, it is expected that at the national level, reporting will be voluntary, country-led and will build on existing platforms and processes. It is not clear yet whether there will be voluntary common reporting guidelines for countries but given contrasting national capabilities and capacity to generate and deploy good environmental or indeed social and economic data, a large degree of national discretion is likely to be established in national reporting 

3. Indicators Designed for Users and Built on Data

The development of high-level environmental indices in SA has been based on stakeholder consultations at each stage of the process. This has guided the definition of the uses and criteria for the indices. The commitment of the Government participants to the NDP has been palpable in these workshops and discussions – there is clearly full buy-in to developing a means of monitoring progress towards sustainability, which is a pre-requisite in tackling this task. Ownership of the task has been strong within Government, but building buy in from others, especially data providers about the choices made for the indices needs to be factored in.

To assist with this work UNEP-WCMC and DEA have developed some frameworks and products, including components of an information system and the roles of indicators, a conceptual framework of the environmental sustainability issues in the NDP (including ecosystem services), and suggested key questions which indicators can help to answer. At UNEP-WCMC this has long been our approach to supporting the development of indicators for National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), but it is also applicable for other indicator development processes and has helped DEA staff in South Africa make sense of what seemed like a complex task i.e. reducing potentially scores of possible indicators into a focused suite of environmental indices.

4. Importance of Presidential Coordination

To adequately manage a broad-based process, such as the indicator development for the NDP, and to align any national development process with the 2030 Agenda requires comprehensive, integrated, cross-sectoral, whole-of-government approaches.  The cross sectoral nature of the new NDP and the 2030 Agenda imposes implementation challenges that are difficult to overcome without the leadership, coordination, enforcement and monitoring capabilities of a national institution with broader oversight - such as the Presidency. Hence, the South African Presidency has taken an active interest in the implementation of the NDP and tasked relevant Departments to report on their plans for implementing the same.

In turn, and recognizing the cross-cutting nature of environmental interventions, the DEA multi-stakeholder process for developing indicators comprises representatives of relevant line ministries, civil society and academia. This promises to be an effective way of breaking the “silos” to meet the holistic nature of systemic threats.


The process of defining indicators is setting out some foundational ideas for political decisions and institutional innovations, which focus on the implementation of the NDP and the 2030 Agenda. This approach has great potential for replication as countries seek to show how national initiatives and plans align with the SDGs without creating entirely new processes of reporting or replicating reporting on the entire set of global goals and targets. The process taken in South Africa, and, in particular, lessons learned, will be of great value and relevance to other countries as they approach the challenge of developing and reporting on national goals that, for the first time, recognise and address the inter-linkages between environment, society and economy. UNEP-WCMC intends to develop a generic framework to support the creation of SDG-relevant environmental indices at a national scale, which take full account of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Maxwell Gomera




Latest comments

10.08 | 16:04

Continue to rest in peace sekuru

10.08 | 07:11

Till we meet again keep resting in peace sekuru

05.07 | 09:26

Isitshwala, the food of champions! You took me down memory lane with this piece, my friend. And with a smile too!!

21.06 | 10:01

RIP will always be missed

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