Misleading road signs in the World Bank’s “SDG Atlas”


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by Roberto Bissio, Coordinator, Social Watch


On the eve of a global meeting of experts from UN agencies and national statistical offices aimed at improving the sustainable development indicators, the World Bank launched its own “Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals 2018” in early November. While this features maps and attractive data visualizations for each of the SDGs, it highlights data and maps roadways that do not match the aspirations of the 2030 Agenda, and obscures the policy measures that would be needed to achieve them.

SDG 1 on poverty elimination, for example, privileges the World Bank’s own global poverty line of USD 1.90 per day, ignoring Target 1.2 that addresses poverty “in all its dimensions”. Cash transfers programmes (largely promoted by the Bank) are defended in the section on social protection (related to SDG Target 1.3) as “the most likely to be directed toward the poor”. One whole page is devoted to land rights (urban and rural), which covers half of Target 1.4, but the other half, which mandates access to basic services, is completely ignored. So too is Target 1.5 on “building resilience of the poor”.

SDG 2 on ending hunger, improving food security, malnutrition and sustainable agriculture is summarized as “zero hunger” and the Atlas highlights indicators related to malnutrition, stunting and food deficit measures, but no mention is made of the key issue of sustainable agriculture, that is equally part of this goal and closely synergizes with the issues of health, poverty, gender equality (most small farmers producing in sustainable ways are women) environmental protection and responsible production and consumption. Further, the data shown in the Atlas either picture the present situation or show a declining “food deficit” in all regions of the world, without mentioning the alarming rise in world hunger in 2016 and 2017 reported jointly a few months ago by FAO, WHO, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and IFAD.*

The Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs, of which the World Bank is a member) has been meeting regularly for three years and so far has only confirmed indicators with agreed methodology and enough data coverage for around half of the SDG targets (see “Desperately Seeking Indicators: different players, different priorities” for an update on the state of play).

In old times cartographers drew sea monsters and beautiful ships to cover those areas of their maps of which they knew nothing and thus avoid inconvenient blank spaces. The World Bank Atlas has a similar problem of lack of coverage and uses a variety of tricks to offer a self-imposed symmetry of four pages for every SDG. For SDG 6 on water and sanitation, for example, it covers only the first two of the eight targets, with five charts and maps each. In the case of several other goals, the Atlas introduces indicators that relate to the issue but are not illustrative of any specific target and are not included in the official set of SDG indicators.

Thus, the chapter on SDG 10 on reducing inequalities opens with a graph showing inequalities across regions, measured by average per capita GDP. This can be seen as a welcome contribution since there is no indicator in the official list that compares inequalities between regions or countries, even when the very title of the goal is to “reduce inequalities within and among countries”. Yet, the choice of per capita income–and not wealth, for example–as a measure and the emphasis on the relative decrease of GDP in North America and the (also relative) GDP increase in East Asia tends to suggest from the start that inequalities are being reduced.

Similarly, the Atlas argues that “inequality can be measured by the relative income growth of the poorest 40 percent of people,” which makes it unnecessary to look at the income growth of the top 10 percent or that of the top 1 percent. That indicator shows that “in 61 countries income growth among the poorest was faster than average,” while the opposite happens in 34 countries. This leads the reader to conclude that inequalities are being reduced… contrary to the opinion of most experts, using other measurements tools, such as the growth of the 1 percent. This issue is extremely important, but has been allocated only two pages.

Half of the chapter on inequalities is devoted instead to remittances by migrants, whose costs one of the ten targets of SDG 10 wants to reduce. It is a relevant aspiration, but arguably not more important than “promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all” (Target 10.2), “improving the regulation and monitoring of global financial markets and institutions” (Target 10.5) or “enhanced representation and voice for developing countries in decision-making in global international economic and financial institutions” (Target 10.6), all of which are ignored by the World Bank Atlas, even when it would be very easy for the World Bank to show the voting power of its own members and the veto power held by the US and the EU (if it acts unanimously).

SDG 12 seeks to “ensure sustainable production and consumption patterns”, but the corresponding chapter in the Atlas is titled “Responsible Consumption and Production”, a significant variation. Using material footprint per capita, the Atlas makes the obvious observation that “people in high-income countries consume more extracted materials than people elsewhere do”. It then goes on to show that “China’s material footprint increased threefold between 2000 and 2010, overtaking that of the United States in 2003” but this is in total volume, not per capita. If the same indicator had been used in both cases, the Atlas would have shown the footprint of the average Chinese as one fourth of that of the average American, or the total “weight” of China as less than half of that of the so called “developed” world, for roughly the same population.

The chapter on SDG 16 (titled “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions”) introduces a map identifying 36 “fragile” countries, a category that is nowhere to be found in the SDG targets or indicators, or in the 2030 Agenda itself, and a whole page on refugees, which is undoubtedly an important issue, but not one addressed directly by SDG 16—or indeed, any of the goals.

Finally, the chapter on SDG 17 on means of implementation, starts with a whole page on Official Development Assistance but completely ignores the first target, which is domestic resource mobilization, mainly via taxes. The indicator on debt service as a proportion of exports is also ignored, even when it is officially listed as Tier I (meaning there is agreed methodology and enough data coverage) and the World Bank itself is listed as “Custodian Agency” of that indicator. Similarly, Target 17.11 that seeks to “significantly increase the exports of developing countries” is not illustrated with the countries’ share of global exports (also an agreed Tier I indicator) but is mapped instead by an “ease of trading” indicator extracted from the “Doing Business” report, that constantly and controversially promotes further trade liberalization.

The Atlas acknowledges in its small print that it offers “selected indicators” and it would therefore be unfair to criticize it for not being exhaustive. But the selection of the World Bank is consistently biased in a way that, on the one hand, presents an optimistic picture (poverty, malnutrition and inequalities are shown as being reduced) that would therefore not require major or urgent policy measures and, on the other, hides the responsibility of high income countries and the international financial and economic system in creating the problems.

The Mercator projection of old world maps distorted the relative size of countries, showing Greenland as big as the whole of Africa, but it was very useful for navigators to find their best routes knowing their latitude and longitude. The World Bank Atlas does the opposite: it distorts the coordinates that should help us assess where we really stand and betrays the goals themselves, with a limited selection of what they intend to achieve. Not a good basis for any roadmap to the SDGs.