INTERVIEW:  FAO statistician Giorgi Kvinikadze believes in the power of data to help achieve the world’s most ambitious goals

Humankind is in the midst of an unprecedented data-gathering and number-crunching effort, and national statistical offices are on the front line.

Giorgi Kvinikadze is FAO statistician for the Europe and Central Asia region, based at the Organization’s regional office here. Kvinikadze spoke recently with senior communication officer Sharon Lee Cowan about how FAO is helping countries in the region with this effort.

It looks like a big moment for statisticians around the world.

Yes, it is. The Sustainable Development Goals are unprecedented in their scope, in the specificity of their targets, and in the expertise needed to track the indicators. The whole process puts statisticians in a very central role.

Back up for a moment. What are the Goals?

The 2030 Agenda – adopted by all countries in late 2015 – consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The goals are ambitious: eliminating hunger and poverty, conserving marine resources, ensuring clean water and sanitation for everyone, and confronting climate change, to name a few.

From a statistical point of view, what are the challenges?

To make sure progress can be measured, the Goals come with a total of 169 targets and 232 unique indicators. For each indicator, the global community needs an internationally agreed statistical methodology, and each country needs to establish its baseline and gear up to start tracking progress according to that methodology. Otherwise, the data won’t be comparable.

What role is FAO playing?

Since food and nutrition, agriculture, and natural resources are central to the Goals, FAO was named “custodian” for 21 indicators closely tied to its work. These fall under the Goals on zero hunger, life below water, life on land, clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, and gender equality. For each indicator under its custodianship, FAO is responsible for leading methodological development and documentation, supporting countries’ statistical capacity to generate and disseminate national data, collecting and reviewing data from national sources and disseminating them at global level, and helping monitor progress at global, regional and national levels. In other words, we work with member countries to make sure they are well equipped to track their progress using the agreed indicators. We provide technical assistance, pilot programmes, development and testing of statistical questionnaires, and hands-on training.

How does the regional office approach this work?

Country by country, we have organized three-day workshops dedicated to the SDG indicators under FAO custodianship. We present the methodology, and really dig into what countries need to do in order to generate the data. These sessions are attended by individuals who will potentially be producing the data – people from statistical offices, Ministries of agriculture, environment, forestry, fisheries, and water authorities. So far, these awareness-raising workshops have been held in Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Tajikistan, and three more are planned this year – for Albania, Armenia and Azerbaijan. This experience was presented this past April to the Second Expert Meeting on Statistics for Sustainable Development Goals, organized by UNECE, with whom we work in close coordination to ensure coherence and avoid duplication of effort among UN organizations.

And then, things get more technical, right?

Exactly. At the next stage, which has already started, our efforts are directed towards enabling countries to actually produce the indicators. The ongoing projects with statistical components are used for this purpose, as well as the projects specifically designed for capacity building on SDG indicators. Designated colleagues at FAO headquarters serve as focal points for SDG indicators, and they are well involved in this comprehensive capacity-building process.

Any misunderstandings?

At first, some countries were inclined to dismiss indicators they felt were not relevant from the national policy point of view. Now, after our efforts, I think everyone understands that all indicators are relevant to all countries, and essential for global reporting and comparisons.

Address the cost-benefit question.

First and foremost, the 2030 Agenda is an initiative that came from the countries themselves, so we know there is a genuine desire to achieve the Goals and measure progress along the way.

Secondly, only a relatively small number of indicators under FAO custodianship require substantial additional effort. In many cases, countries are already routinely generating the data needed. Some indicators – the mountain green index, for example – are measured directly by FAO using satellite imagery. In other cases, the countries will use FAO-produced questionnaires.

Thirdly, the whole process actually enhances national statistical systems – enabling them to use new methodologies, design and conduct new types of surveys, and generate more useful data.

One final thought?

All of these Goals and targets are objectives that any country in the world would want to achieve. After all, you cannot govern effectively if you are unaware of your situation. What the 2030 Agenda does is put all the goals and targets into a single framework, make them measurable and comparable worldwide, and provide countries with a lot of practical support for tracking their own progress.