Monitoring, accountability and the Sustainable Development Goals

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/Ernest Randriarimalala

As part of WaterAid's participation at the High Level Political Forum, Kathryn Tobin coordinated various side events and a federation-wide communications plan, whilst Maisie-Rose Byrne read every voluntary national review (that's 111 in total) submitted since 2016. Both attended sessions in which governments reported on their SDG 6 progress (water, sanitation and hygiene for all). These are their findings:

Exactly three years ago this week, global leaders from 192 UN member states unanimously adopted the 2030 Agenda and committed to a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. Since then, 102 countries have shared their progress towards these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and one thing is clear: governments are not prioritising reporting on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to the extent required to achieve their promise of providing safe water and sanitation for everyone, everywhere by 2030.

The 2018 High Level Political Forum (HLPF) included the first global review of progress towards achieving SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). Likely because of this focus, countries shared updates on their progress on WASH-related issues in their annual voluntary national review (VNR) reports, to a greater extent than in previous years.

Almost one-fifth of submitting countries included an SDG 6 progress report and more countries referred explicitly to the 'fundamental human right to water and sanitation', a welcome advance in ownership of a human rights-based approach. And in clear acknowledgement of the universality of the 2030 Agenda, an increasing number of developed countries have provided robust reports on their SDG 6 achievements, including Greece and Canada. Furthermore, Ecuador’s report applies their 'Safe Water and Sanitation for All' strategy to highlight that integrating SDG 6 targets serves an effective step towards making WASH a government priority.

These positive examples are worryingly rare, however: most VNRs simply repeat their commitments to the 2030 Agenda, making even more conspicuous the simultaneous lack of urgency and progress in achieving it.

Whilst many observers feel the VNRs have not lived up to their promise and require considerable reform, the process is the primary mechanism for gauging national SDG progress, so governments need to be held to account to submit comprehensive, participatory, honest reports detailing challenges and advances. Whilst some countries, such as Nepal, have used the VNR process creatively to show how their SDG commitments are part of an 'Integrated National Evaluation Action Plan', overall the reports lack structure and comparability.

Further, most countries that dedicate a section to SDG 6 focus explicitly on water and leave out sanitation and hygiene, a trend echoed in the official session on SDG 6 at HLPF 2018. Lebanon, Colombia and Mexico are exceptions by clearly reporting on their sanitation targets, but hygiene progress is almost unanimously absent from VNR reports, reflecting both the more challenging task of collating accurate data and the low status of hygiene and behaviour change as a political priority.

Ultimately, the accountability challenge around WASH action remains urgent. To achieve universal water and sanitation access by 2030, all governments must robustly report on WASH progress every year, both against SDG 6 targets and with respect to interconnected goals. Without clear measurement and broad sharing of existing data, we will not be able to either clearly manage what policies and programmes are effective or - crucially - to hold those responsible to account.


How have governments reported on SDG 6 in their VNRs?

  • Since 2016, less than 5% of VNRs have clearly reported on target 6.1, and the majority of those that have reported have used outdated statistics.

  • Since 2016, less than 3% of VNRs have clearly reported on target 6.2; those that have focus almost exclusively on sanitation progress, neglecting the importance of hygiene.

Sri Lanka VNR