Making the global SDG indicators relevant for local actors: how a theory of change can be used to link local and global

by Meghann Jones & Kaitlin Love, Ipsos Sustainable Development Research Center, Washington DC

“A robust follow-up and review mechanism for the implementation of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will require a solid framework of indicators and statistical data to monitor progress, inform policy and ensure accountability of all stakeholders.” (Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data)

The United Nations Global Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data has developed 232 globally-agreed indicators to measure progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. However, these indicators are national-level metrics that are frequently distant from the efforts of those leading programs that can achieve the SDGs on the ground. As a result, those who are implementing initiatives to achieve the SDGs will need to determine how to connect the metrics used by their specific programs to these national-level indicators.

In an ideal world, front-line actors – the sub-national agencies, donor agencies, NGOs, and the private sector – would track their efforts in a way that is meaningful for their work and can also be “rolled-up” to the national and global SDG indicators. However, currently the Global Action Plan provides limited guidance about how to do this.

In its measurement work for sustainable development initiatives around the world, Ipsos’ Sustainable Development Research Center emphasizes the importance of using a “theory of change” to link societal impacts to community and program-based outcomes and impacts, and these outcomes and impacts back to the program activities and resources that facilitate them.

This theory of change approach has been a staple of program evaluation for decades, and can be a helpful tool for sustainable development initiatives in understanding the impact of their policies and programs, as well as the contribution of individual initiatives towards broader goals. In the case of the SDGs, a theory of change can help to articulate the link between the “big picture” SDG indicators and the local-level program assessment.

A theory of change captures a policy or program’s hypothesis or “vision for success” and sets out the process by which it intends to achieve its stated objectives. It presents the interim milestones through which a program will achieve its goals, and provides a structured framework for developing program-level indicators, metrics, and appropriate data collection methodologies and analytical strategies for determining the effects of a program and the drivers of those effects.

The diagram below outlines how a theory of change for a program designed to provide training and resources to women leaders might look, with “primary impacts” as the direct program impacts and the “overall impact” being the achievement of SDG 5 (full and effective participation and equal opportunities for women in leadership). Our theory of change shows that that as more women are trained, more women will occupy leadership roles, either in business or in their community. Our measures then are the number of trainings conducted, the number of women trained, and the percentage of those trainees who successfully obtain leadership roles.

While this illustrates how program-level assessment of progress can speak to broader, national level metrics, it is of course very simplistic – in a fully elaborated theory of change for such a program we would want to consider the mechanism by which the program leads to an increase in women’s leadership in greater detail. For example, as women are trained and mentored, their confidence, technical knowledge, and access to networks will grow, leading to more women seeking and achieving leadership, increasing the number of women in leadership positions.

This is just a basic example of how a theory of change can support an evaluation for a program designed to achieve progress towards the sustainable development goals. Each program, and its corresponding evaluation, should be tailored to the specific goals it is hoping to achieve. In an upcoming series of articles the Ipsos team will describe in more detail how to develop good measurement around the SDGs, including developing concrete measures for abstract concepts such as “ripple effects”, “empowerment” and “social progress”, as well as how program managers can understand causation and attribution.


Meghann Jones is a Senior Vice President with Ipsos and is the US lead for the Ipsos Sustainable Development Research Center, based in Washington DC.

Kaitlin Love is a Director with Ipsos in the Ipsos Sustainable Development Research Center, based in Washington DC. 

Ipsos is a member of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.