Reflections on Kenneth King’s talk, “Lost in Translation? Learning Challenges in the SDG4 Target-to-Indicator Process”

Below, CIRE Members and Msc students Sabah Hussein Shide, Doris Asimeng, and Chris Doel reflect on their impressions and the questions, yet to be answered, that arose in their consideration of Kenneth King’s recent talk on Sustainable Development Goal 4.

Sabah Hussein Shide: Problematic indicators and educational quality

Professor Kenneth King presented a lively and stimulating discussion on the fourth Sustainable Development Goal for education (SDG4) titled: Lost in Translation? Learning Challenges in the SDG4 Target-to-Indicator Process. Whilst many aspects of this presentation resonated with me, I will share my reflections on just one of the issues raised which was the narrowing and reducing of education goals into useable global indicators.

Professor King highlighted the inconsistency with the claim that SDG 4 resulted from ‘the most inclusive process of consultation in the history of the United Nations’ (Naidoo, cited in King, 2017). Yet, arguably the most important task of translating these into achievable targets and essentially the process of global indicator development has been principally left to technical experts (in UN’s Inter-Agency Expert Group). This, King argued, has resulted in the omission of vital, qualitative aspects of some of the globally agreed targets whilst other aspects have been misrepresented, bearing little resemblance to the idealistic goals they represent.

Professor King gave some striking examples, like that of SDG 4.3 & 4.4 where equal access for all to ‘quality technical, vocational and tertiary education’ and increasing numbers ‘who have relevant skills, including technical & vocational skills for employment, decent jobs & entrepreneurship.’ Which gets translated into a global indictor that only aims to measure the ‘proportion of youth and adults with information & communications technology (ICT) skills, by type of skill’ And ‘quality technical and vocational’ becomes merely ‘participation rate in formal & non-formal education & training’ in last 12 months.

It struck me that whilst on the one hand the ‘right things’ are relatively easy to identify and say in a global declaration of sorts, it is clearly far more difficult to measure in any meaningful way. Instead what we are left with is a mismatch between the global education targets highlighted in SDG4 and the indicators that are said to measure the progress towards these. For me, as an inherently qualitative-focused individual, the idea that an area such as education which is multifaceted and complex can be reduced to that which can be measured or counted is hugely problematic and needs redressing.

It also made me question the extent to which the same goals that are supposed to be levelling the playing field and raising the education standards of all countries around the world are instead effectively eroding the scope of education to enrich and empower beyond statistically compliant measures. For countries that continue to pursue their national goals in conjunction with regional and global goals and targets, perhaps the limitations set by SDG4 indicators can be overcome more easily. However, my concern is more for developing countries that are more likely to internalise global goals and agendas, sometimes at the cost of national and regional goals. Can relevant skills such as ‘…technical & vocational skills for employment, decent jobs & entrepreneurship’ in these countries really be reduced to just ‘ICT skills’?

Doris Asimeng: Whose expertise?

A system is being set up in which only the global indicators will be used for the key annual SDG Report. What happens therefore to the priorities set by, for example, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, with its very different deadline? Or to countries, such as China, with their Five-Year Plans? Do countries have to accommodate the 17 goals and 169 targets of the SDGs within their own agreed national plans? Assumption of a Global Governance concept a problem: Who are they? Where are they? And what power do they have over nations? (King, 2017 Slide 14)

The above excerpt from the presentation from Kenneth King summed up my sentiments about the global influence on policy making at the national level. I had not given much thought to the targets and indicators of the SDG 4 until that presentation. Indeed I became familiar with the SDG 4 last term whilst researching an assignment on quality education. In my quest to know more about EFA and SDGs, in particular, the influence of global actors on national policy in respect of EFA attracted me to this seminar.

It was interesting to learn from King that there has been a dilution of indicators used for measuring the targets set for the SDGs. The key idea I took from the presentation was the conflict and tension that nations, especially those from the developing countries face in meeting these SDG indicators which take no cognisance of national and regional educational plans as shown in the quote above.

The involvement of OECD-DAC in developing indicators for SDGs was revealing. King pointed out that ‘the vital process of global indicator development has been principally left to technical experts (in UN’s Inter-Agency Expert Group)’. He did not elaborate on the constituent members of the group but my personal guess is that the group is likely to be dominated by OECD countries.

In the final analysis, the presentation clearly contributed to my research on the influences of the global on national policies of countries in the area of the EFA Framework.

Chris Doel: Local contexts and technocrats

The opening question ‘Lost in translation?’ relating to SDG4, was apt for a group of MSc students embarking on research into the significance of SDG4 and global education policy in a UK context.

The session explored the intricacies of global policy that does not really take into account the realities of local contexts. Of course, local contexts are alluded to in the goals, and not just in SDG4; but how are less developed countries supposed to implement SDG4 if some, or all of the goals, do not align with local contexts? This is the case in developed countries too where it is right to assume that the SDGs are not widely known about, or they are ‘managed’ and ‘implemented’ (if at all) by ministries not aligned with education. Let us take the UK context where DfID have the responsibility to implement SDG4 but do not communicate directly with the DfEE. Therefore, what is the significance of global education policy when, it is argued, many developing countries are implementing SDG4 whilst many (Northern) states are not. How can the SDGs be achieved? Is there ever going to be equity across the globe in terms of how people are educated? Do the UK see SDG as a national or international education policy?

Are the SDGs achievable? It would seem that other hurdles are already in place (unwittingly). Such hurdles contradict the advertised nature of setting up the SDGs because of the proposed failure of the preceding EFA and MDGs. Where was the transparent democratic process? What about ‘targets’ and ‘monitoring’.

Not only are there targets, but indicators too: the latter being developed by ‘technocrats’, as opposed to the publicised consultative process leading up to the implementation of the SGDs in September 2015. ‘It is claimed that SDG 4 resulted from ‘the most inclusive process of consultation in the history of the United Nations’. By contrast, the vital process of global indicator development has been principally left to technical experts. It is claimed that the ‘global indicator framework will be simple yet robust’, but how? For SDG 4’s 10 targets there are 11 global indicators and 32 thematic indicators; there will also be regional and national indicators; it would be interesting to ascertain whether such ‘regional indicators’ have been contextualised. What happens to quality learning and children’s rights to education, where only 11 global ones are the main source of data for the UN’s annual SDG reports?

Therefore, ‘global governance by targets and indicators’. Linked closely to this we see that there is also a closely aligned relationship between the public and the private, which highlights the ambiguous nature of ‘free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education’ (SGD4.1). This begs the question of ‘whether such partnerships undermine education as a human right’. The relationship between the public and the private will always be a contested one and could jeopardise the intended aims of SDG4. Which members in the global society will miss out? The poor and vulnerable? However, the private sector could raise awareness of SDG4 which is not widely known about, let alone understood.

Kenneth King concluded on an assumption of global governance, posing the following question: The Final, Bigger Question: Global, Regional or National Priorities? Which brings us back to the ‘targets’ and ‘indicators’ discussed earlier. What about priorities set by individual countries that may not necessarily have the same priorities as the global community? What happens, for example, to the priorities set by the African Union’s Agenda 2063, with its very different deadline? OR ‘countries, such as China, with their Five-Year Plans?’ There are 17 goals and 169 targets; how are these to be integrated into national plans? There is also the ‘Assumption of a Global Governance concept’ (which is) a problem: Who are they? Where are they? And what power do they have over nations? This is all to be taken into consideration within national and local political contexts. What about the political shift to the Right? Will SDG4 be a priority and align with national politics (King)?