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Will the 10th IAEG-SDGs meeting deliver for adolescents?

Adolescent girls at school in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Photo Nathalie Bertrams/GAGE 2019

This week, from 21–24 October 2019, the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to prepare for the upcoming 2020 Comprehensive Review. The 2020 Review serves as an opportunity to review and improve the SDG Indicator Framework, created to monitor country progress and serve as guarantor for the Agenda 2030’s pledge that no one be left behind.

The 10th IAEG-SDGs meeting in Addis is the most tangible and significant opportunity to improve the SDG Framework since its inception. It will prove critical in ensuring the principles of data disaggregation are enacted and in creating a nuanced picture of a country’s progress in a world where those who are left behind are often those who are not counted, and those not counted cannot be targeted in policy and programming efforts. The next opportunity to refine the SDG Framework will be in 2025.

The IAEG-SDGs has its work cut out. To put it bluntly, a lot needs to be done to improve the SDG Framework for groups being left behind – including adolescents around the world. In fact, although adolescents aged 10–19 represent 16% of the world’s population, their visibility is very low in the targets against which progress towards the 2030 Agenda is being measured. Not surprisingly, adolescent fertility and education are being measured, but in many Goals there are no gender- and age-disaggregated indicators to track gendered experiences in adolescence, let alone concerted efforts to collect the data to measure adolescents’ progress against those Goals.

Our recent GAGE brief has identified that less than 8% of SDG indicators currently require disaggregation by gender and adolescent age. Specifically, the 18 gender and adolescent indicators are housed in six Goals (SDGs 1, 3, 4, 5, 8 and 11), such that gender and age disaggregation is not being explicitly required in minimum disaggregation dimensions across the remaining 11 Goals. Excluding adolescents from key SDGs will cause them to be left behind.

Within the global adolescent cohort, critical sub-groups of adolescents are being particularly sidelined, such as refugee adolescents, disabled adolescents and unmarried yet sexually active adolescents. Surprisingly, while refugees are mentioned in the 2030 Agenda narrative, they are not singled out as a specific population under any of the 17 SDGs, nor do refugee populations have explicit indicators dedicated to tracking their developmental milestones. This deserves closer scrutiny.

There are more refugees in the world today than at any other time in history – in 2018 there were over 25.4 million refugees, 52% of whom were under 18. The sheer numbers of refugee adolescents are not reflected in the SDG Framework, causing their vulnerabilities, needs and lives to slip through programming. In 2018, a UNHCR report shed light on educational gaps faced by refugees, with only 23% attending secondary school compared to 84% globally. The scale of the problem is huge, yet the IAEG-SDG Background Document on Data Disaggregation reports that there are three indicators currently yielding data disaggregated by migrant status. Three, of 232 indicators in total.

During data collection for a forthcoming GAGE study, I visited the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh where the invisibility of adolescent girls and boys hits you in the face.  Although the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report reiterated the overall goal of the Agenda 2030 for shared prosperity and sustainability in ‘a world where all people can live productive, vibrant and peaceful lives’ – the likelihood of attaining this ambitious agenda is seriously called into question. Rohingya adolescents lack viable educational opportunities, where learning centres are seen to cater to young children, and adolescents feel at once bored and restless with limited mobility and a lack of livelihood opportunities. Are they being transparently and directly monitored by the SDG indicators? In short, no.

Other groups of adolescents are also being left behind. A UNICEF-Innocenti study points to data gaps on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) for unmarried sexually active adolescents. Our own GAGE research has highlighted adolescent refugee boys among the most overlooked populations in data collection and programming efforts; and UNICEF has reported that data on the availability of school-based infrastructure for students with disabilities is practically non-existent across countries.

Following an open consultation process, the IAEG-SDGs’ 10th meeting will analyse proposals to adjust, amend, add to or – in extreme cases – delete existing SDG indicators and begin preparing recommendations to put forth to the UN Statistical Commission in March 2020.  Also on the meeting agenda are sessions on intersecting geospatial and statistical input for SDG monitoring, as well as reviewing Tier III methodologies for those indicators that do not have agreed metadata.

Truth be told, only via gathering sufficiently disaggregated data can we unmask inequalities and understand intersecting vulnerabilities that are often shaped by gender, age, income, disability, migration status, ethnicity, location and other factors. Five years into the implementation of the SDG Framework, the hope is that the IAEG-SDGs meeting in Addis will address these data gaps.