How can civil society collaborate to bolster SDG monitoring?

By Jack Cornforth and Kate Higgins

After nearly three years of intergovernmental discussions and unprecedented participation from civil society and other stakeholders, the outcome document for September’s Post-2015 Summit has now been agreed. The text clearly acknowledges that civil society organisations have a big role to play in ‘Transforming Our World’.  But it lacks clarity about exactly how civil society organisations can support the implementation, monitoring and review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When it comes to the monitoring, or ‘Follow Up and Review’, of the SDGs, civil society organisations have a huge amount to offer. Civil society can use official data to advocate for and track SDG progress.  Civil society also can draw from the huge amount of data it has – data that supports the implementation of sectoral programs, data generated to monitor and evaluate the impact of advocacy and programs and data that is collected to periodically understand the communities in which we work – to monitor SDG progress.  New forms of citizen-generated data, much of which is being generated in creative ways by leveraging technology, are also generating new, real-time and context-specific data.

While the outcome document is weak on the role that non-official data sources in monitoring SDG progress, we believe that civil society must work together and move forward with these efforts – whether opportunities arise to do this as part of the official SDG monitoring processes, or through some form of alternative monitoring process.

To date, beyond specific thematic initiatives, little coordinated effort has been put towards thinking through how to harness civil society and citizen-generated data to monitor SDG progress across the 17 goals at the national, regional and global levels.  CIVICUS, through its DataShift initiative, has therefore been seeking to incubate a conversation on how we in civil society can collaborate to best use our data to monitor the SDGs.

A recent DataShift background note defines civil society and citizen-generated data and makes the case for why this data should inform SDG monitoring.  We also recently convened two calls with civil society colleagues – one in partnership International Civil Society Centre and one open to all civil society colleagues – which sought to gauge interest in cooperating on SDG monitoring and chart a path for how we would actually go about doing this.

A striking element of these discussions was just how much data civil society organisations are already collecting and using. At one end of the scale there are efforts such as HelpAge International’s Global Age Watch Index and Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer. At the other end, national and sub-national actors are generating local data in a number of different ways, often providing invaluable direct qualitative information about people’s experiences of SDG-related issues. For instance, the International Budget Partnership is working with local partners in Kenya and South Africa to develop bottom-up assessments to better track development budgets.

As we expected, many organisations are already actively exploring how the data they produce could be used for monitoring the SDGs, but primarily doing so as individual, sector-specific actors. Nevertheless, virtually all participants on these calls expressed a strong interest in collaborating to try to do this more effectively within and across sectors. Several options for what this collaboration might look like were discussed.  These included:

  • A comprehensive global shadow reporting framework across the SDGs and accompanying data hub and global flagship report, which was seen as being exciting, ambitious but also extremely challenging

  • Comprehensive country-level shadow reporting frameworks across the SDGs, acknowledging that country-level efforts will have the most impact

  • Goal-specific collaborations at the country and global levels, starting with goals where data is most limited and civil society and citizen-generated data can add the most value, and then scaling up across all goals

  • A mapping exercise to identify civil society and citizen-generated data sources across the SDGs, to better understand where and how civil society organisations are collecting data against each SDG

  • Joint advocacy for the inclusion of civil society and citizen-generated data in Member State-led monitoring and reporting processes

  • Joint advocacy to harness resources to help strengthen the data literacy and capacity of CSOs, particularly through the proposed Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data

  • Engagement with National Statistical Offices (NSO), including concrete opportunities for collaboration between NSOs and civil society organisations

  • Collaborative initiatives that demonstrate the credibility of civil society and citizen-generated data, and highlight how it can usefully complement official sources of data

The DataShift is moving forward on a number of these fronts, particularly through our national-level research, by providing direct support to citizen-generated data projects and through our recently launched DataShift Learning Zone.  CIVICUS is also actively engaging in the development of the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data.

But we are keen to tackle SDG monitoring collaboratively, convinced that by working together we will have the most impact.  We are keen to engage with other organisations and networks working on these issues to avoid duplicating efforts and are conscious of the need to go beyond global policy discussions to engage with grassroots organisations and movements at the national and sub-national levels.

To take this conversation forward, the DataShift will host a meeting on Civil Society, Data and the SDGs on the margins of the Post-2015 Summit and UNGA in New York in September (watch out for the soon-to-be-circulated Save the Date!).  A key objective will be to identify some concrete activities that we can work on together to best position civil society to harness its wealth of data to monitor and drive progress on the SDGs.

Please do not hesitate to contact Kate Higgins at or Jack Cornforth at with questions, comments or ideas!