Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring SDGs: An Independent Research Initiative

Consisting of a dozen case studies and more than 10 researchers from around the world, the aim of this study is to better understand the limitations as well as the potential of the SDGs so that they can be used appropriately.

International research project

The project is coordinated by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr (The New School) and Desmond McNeill (University of Oslo), and involves 10 other researchers from universities around the world.

How to follow up the ambitious goals?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an enormously important normative agenda. Negotiated through an unprecedented process of engagement of stakeholders with diverse interests and aspirations, the agenda is ambitious, calling for development that is inclusive and sustainable, containing elements that tackle some structural causes of inequality and environmental destruction. Is there a danger that in the process of translating this into detailed targets and indicators, this agenda may become distorted?

Our research

The aim of the study is to better understand the limitations as well as the potential of these global goals/targets/indicators so that they can be used appropriately. The research, consisting of a dozen case studies, is applying a consistent conceptual framework to provide a systematic comparison across (most of) the SDGs, covering topics such as gender, education, food and agriculture, inequality, environment, and employment. It also includes two papers focused on the changing landscape of data in development. It draws on and aims to contribute to the social science literature on quantification and its effects on governance and knowledge, particularly to the recent research on the use of indicators in governance.


  • Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, The New School, New York
  • Desmond McNeill, Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo
  • Gita Sen, Public Health Foundation of India, Bangalore
  • Elaine Unterhalter, University of London
  • Alicia Ely Yamin, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Mark Elder, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Kanagawa, Japan

  • Simon Høiberg Olsen, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Kanagawa, Japan

  • Des Gasper, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague
  • Amod Shah, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague
  • Sunil Tankha,International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague
  • Margaret L. Satterthwaite, New York University

  • Sukti Dhital, New York University

  • Manjari Mahajan, The New School, New York

  • Steve MacFeely, UNCTAD


  1. Serge Kapto, UNDP
  2. Luise Ruerup and Sara Burke, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, New York
  3. Sally Engle Merry, New York University
  4. Barbara Adams, Global Policy Watch
  5. Pali Lehola, former Statistician-General, South Africa
  6. Enrique Ordaz, Co-chair of the IAEG-SDGs
  7. Shahra Razavi, UN Women
  8. Marie Laberge, UNDP
  9. Paula Caballero, initial proposer of the SDGs, now at WRI, Washington

Premise of the study

The underlying premise of the study is that global goals are a terrain of contestation, with different actors that compete for their interests (strategic or material) and ideas. They attempt to exert influence by ensuring that the goals are formulated and measured in ways that frame discourses that favor their agendas. The formulation of the SDGs was hotly contested involving an unprecedented engagement of governments, development agencies, NGOs and academics. The selection and interpretation of indicators has followed a different process in which statisticians play the central role. Though intended to be a neutral and ‘technocratic’ process – this too continues to be contested, with potentially deleterious effects.

Work progress

The initiative kicked off with a discussion of initial ideas at a preliminary workshop at SUM, University of Oslo, in May 2017. Draft papers were subsequently presented and discussed at a two-day workshop at The New School, New York, in November 2017 with financial support from UNDP. Commentators included Enrique Ordaz, co-chair of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs Indicators; Francesca Perucci, Chief of the Statistical Services Branch in the UN Statistics Division; and David O’Connor, formerly Chief, Policy and Analysis Branch, Division for Sustainable Development, UN-DESA. The finalized papers will be published as a Special Issue of Global Policy, with open access financed by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

Published Dec. 20, 2017 4:13 PM - Last modified Feb. 25, 2019 2:47 PM