Regional Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development for Latin America and the Caribbean Region
10 Mar 1997 - 12 Mar 1997
San José, Costa Rica

Report of the Workshop

I. Foreword by the Government of Costa Rica as Host for the National Conference and the Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development

  1. The current national policies of the Government of Costa Rica are guided by the concept of sustainable development, following the general principles of Agenda 21. To promote such a development strategy, the Government of Costa Rica, through the coordination of the Ministry of National Planning (MIDEPLAN) has promoted creation of a National System for Sustainable Development.
  2. The National System for Sustainable Development (SINADES) is a mechanism to articulate strategies, policies and actions of the public sector oriented to the promotion of sustainable development. SINADES is in the process of implementation with the support of a technical cooperation project funded by a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) (ATN/SF/4717-CR). The project includes training activities intended to promote changes in attitudes, through workshops, courses and conferences. These activities are oriented to public servants and civil society leaders holding positions at the decision-making level.
  3. In this context, the National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development was included within the framework of the Regional Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean. The purpose of the National Conference was to include a broader audience of national decision-makers and to discuss and compare different conceptual and practical approaches for the assessment of sustainable development, stressing the relevance of sustainable development indicators and the adjustment of national accounts.

II. Opening Session

  1. The Meeting with nearly 100 participants was opened by the Vice-Minister of National Planning of Costa Rica, followed by welcome addresses of the Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Office of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Assistant Director of the Human Development, Institutions and Technology Branch on behalf of Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD)

The Government of Costa Rica

  1. H.E. the Vice-Minister of National Planning, Sr. Mario Mora, warmly welcomed the participants of the Workshop and a large invited audience including representatives from diverse sectors of the Costa Rican Society attending the National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development. The Vice-Minister noted that the Government face three basic challenges, including (1) to achieve equity in its social programmes, particularly in education and health as fundamental mechanisms for social mobility, (2) to achieve economic growth based on an intelligent integration with the rest of the world, including rational utilization of the natural resource base and properly valued human resources, and (3) to strengthen the participation of society in the national development process. He said that the country has understood that these three challenges must be met in a holistic way to achieve the desired national goals. This is one of the pillars of sustainable development for Costa Rica. It is within this framework that sustainable development indicators acquire a high degree of relevance. The Ministry of Planning and Economic Policy has developed concrete actions in this regard and supports all efforts such as the present National Conference and Workshop.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP)

  1. Sr. Fernando Zumbado, the Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Office of UNDP said that Agenda 21, Chapter 40, establishes very clearly the need for developing sustainable development indicators. This task has to be undertaken by national governments as well as by governmental and non governmental international organizations. However, it is until now, and after many initiatives of the Commission of Sustainable Development, that light is starting to shine on the horizon for SD indicators.
  2. Indicators of national development are urgently needed as such societies start to take their own destiny in their hands. In this sense, relevant and pertinent information for the decision making process is fundamental, not only for appropriate policy making, but also, to strengthen democratic participation of people in national affairs, and for supporting accountability.
  3. This Regional Workshop on SD indicators that starts today represents a hope for the Region because, in the near future, we might have a concrete and pragmatic recommendation from the Commission on Sustainable Development on indicators of sustainable development to be implemented at the national level. It also gives me satisfaction to inaugurate this type of workshop in my home country, Costa Rica, because it is a recognition of the efforts that the Government of Costa Rica and public national universities, with the support of UNDP, have shown towards the development of sustainable development indicators at the national level.

The UN Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD)

  1. Mr. Nitin Desai, Under-Secretary-General for the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development sent a statement to the meeting which was read by Mr. Lowell Flanders, Assistant Director, Division for Sustainable Development, DPCSD. In his statement, Mr. Desai expressed his sincere appreciation and gratitude to the Government of Costa Rica for sponsoring the regional workshop on indicators of sustainable development. He stressed the importance of the forthcoming Special Session of the UN General Assembly which will review and appraise the progress achieved in the five years since UNCED. He noted that one of the areas where considerable progress has been made by the Commission on Sustainable Development is in its Work Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development. The Latin American and Caribbean region has played a critical role in the UNCED process and has contributed substantially to the progress made since the Earth Summit, hence the initiative taken by the Government of Costa Rica in hosting the regional workshop was yet another example of the leadership role played by Latin American countries in realizing the objectives of Agenda 21.

III. Organization of the Meeting

  1. The Regional Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean was organized by the Government of Costa Rica at San Jose, in cooperation with the United Nations Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, from 10 to 12 March 1997.
  2. The Meeting started with a National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development.

A. Attendance:

  1. The meeting was attended by representatives from the host country Costa Rica as well as Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and the United States.
  2. The United Nations bodies and other international institutions represented included the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD), the Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis (DESIPA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Costa Rica Office, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Panama Office and the International Center of Economic Policy for Sustainable Development in Costa Rica.
  3. Leading representatives from Costa Rica had been invited to attend the National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development, including senior officials, policy and decision-makers, congressmen, local authorities, the academic and business communities, politicians, labour leaders and representatives of non-governmental organizations.

B. Election of Officers:

  1. The Workshop elected H.E. Vice Minister, Mario Mora as Chairperson, and Dr. Edgar E. Gutierrez-Espeleta as Vice-Chairperson and Sr. Oscar Lücke as Rapporteur.

C. Adoption of the Agenda:

  1. The Workshop adopted the following agenda:
    1. Opening of the Meeting.
    2. Adoption of the Agenda.
    3. National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development:
      1. he Canadian Experience in the Use of Environment-Related Indicators.
      2. Indicators of Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean: from Concept to Use Information for Policy-Making.
      3. The Indicators of Sustainable Development in Costa Rica - the pioneering experience of Costa Rica.
      4. The CSD's Indicators of Sustainable Development.
    4. Experiences of Countries and Agencies in Indicator Development.
    5. Small Group Sessions:
      1. The Selection of Priority Indicators of Sustainable Development.
      2. The Indicator Methodology Sheets.
      3. The Guidelines for National Testing of Indicators of Sustainable Development.
    6. Other Matters.

IV. The National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development

(Item 3 of the Agenda)

  1. The need to measure progress towards sustainable development was recognized in Agenda 21, and a wide range of efforts have been made at the national and international level to develop commonly accepted criteria, framework and methods for measurement. The goal of measurement is complicated by the fact that it has been difficult to arrive at an operational definition of sustainable development that sets the specific targets against which national efforts could be measured. The purpose of the Conference was to familiarize national level decision-makers with efforts underway at the international level and in various countries to address these problems. The presentations made at the Conference shared the experiences of Canada and Costa Rica in their respective national experience. The other presentation examined the issues from a regional perspective and the fourth covered international efforts to implement a work programme on indicators of sustainable development as approved by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

Item 3 (a) of the agenda: Ms. Anne Kerr (Canada)

  1. Ms. Kerr stated that Canada already reports on many of the economic and social indicators in the CSD list of indicators of sustainable development. Over the past seven years they have been concentrating efforts on developing environmental indicators through the National Environmental Indicators Program. The objective of this program is to provide a profile of the state of the environment and a means of tracking progress towards sustainable development. Key elements of their approach are: goals/themes for environmentally sustainable development; issue selection; a stress-condition-societal response and ecosystem model; indicator selection criteria; consultations and partnerships; and indicator bulletins. Issues of national significance are categorized under three themes for environmentally sustainable development. Over the years, they have been modifying and improving their indicator development framework. The traditional stress-condition-societal response matrix has evolved to a cyclical model that is more illustrative of ecosystem linkages and interactions. This conceptual modification has allowed them to incorporate more economic and social/health links. Examples include presenting gross domestic product (GDP) trends with the indicators of new supplies of ozone-depleting substances and carbon dioxide emissions respectively. Graphed together one can judge whether, over time, there is a decoupling in the rate and direction of change in emissions (CO2) or supplies (ozone-depleting substances) and economic activity. Three key challenges of indicator development are: data availability and accessibility; balancing scientific detail with the need for indicators to be understandable to non-specialists; and limiting the number of indicators to a small set. Recent institutional developments include: the legislative requirement for federal departments to produce sustainable development strategies and measures of progress, and the creation of a Government-wide Performance Indicators Project coordinated by the Treasury Board which may eventually lead to government-wide indicators of sustainable development.

Item 3 (b) of the agenda: Mr. Manuel Winograd

(International Center for Tropical Agriculture)

  1. Mr. Winograd said that the concept of sustainable development implies, at minimum, the consideration of the economic, social and environmental components and their interlinkages In practice it is needed to produce and use 3 types of indicators:
    1. economic, social and environmental indicators.
    2. socio-economic, socio-ecological and ecological-economical indicators.
    3. sustainability indicators
  2. At the same time, the information needed to monitor the development process and progress toward sustainability should be produced as a function of the different steps of the policy-making cycle. In practice, to produce and use information for policy making in the context of the sustainable development it is necessary to identify driving forces in order to measure and monitor the state and impact on the system and generate responses. Nevertheless the use of indicators depends on different scales (temporal and spatial). In practice the production of information and the use of indicators to measure and monitor the development process are more than simple menus, listing or summation of indicators. The important question is to obtain a perspective of the whole pattern of the development process. In order to do this it is necessary to produce information at different scales (global, regional, national and local) and levels (administrative and ecological) allow us to obtain and use indicators in different formats (i.e., tabulated data, maps).

Item 3 (c) of the agenda: Mr. Pablo Sauma (Costa Rica)

  1. Mr. Sauma reported that in Costa Rica quantitative information is abundant as a result of the development models adopted. Today, Costa Rica has a reliable and continuous economic indicator series.
  2. Costa Rica developed its economic model with the creation of socially oriented institutions like the Ministry of Education, the Social Security System and others. These institutions also generated an important information base expressed in social indicators. A strong need for developing environmental indicators became evident by the seventies with the implementation of the Protected Area System and the birth of a strong environmental movement. At present environmental information is dispersed, is not continuous over time and has problems of availability and consistency.
  3. The Ministry of Planning and Economic Policy has been working for about two years in developing and stabilizing a National Sustainable Development System based on two key elements: One a data base and the other institutional links with information users and producers.
  4. The data base includes more than five hundred indicators in three areas: The socio-demographic, the economic and the environmental area.
  5. This Sustainable Development System is going to be the basic instrument of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Policy to prepare and to follow up to the National Development Plan. Finally, it is important to visualize what still has to be done with regard to the National Sustainable Development System.
  6. These tasks could be listed as follows:
    1. To secure the continuity of the National Sustainable Development System based on information demand.
    2. To develop and implement the National Institute of Statistics. This institute will be responsible of the National Sustainable Development Management System.
    3. To set policies to continue the integrative process of the social, economic and environmental dimension of sustainable development.
    4. To involve local organizations in regionalizing the system.
    5. To guarantee free access to the data base through Internet.

Item 3 (d) of the agenda: Mr. Lowell Flanders (DSD/DPCSD)

  1. Mr. Flanders, in his statement, gave a brief description of the activities leading up to the 1997 Special Session of the General Assembly which will review the progress since UNCED. He then provided an overview of the CSD Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development, its origin and evolution. He made reference to the previous presentations which provided a context for understanding how indicators can be used and be useful in charting a course towards sustainable development, emphasizing that indicators are not an end in themselves, but only a tool to help measure progress or give a picture of where things stand at a particular moment in time. Note was made of the gradual realization among countries that traditional economic measures of progress such as GDP do not provide a complete picture of societal well-being and that in recent years much more emphasis has been given to finding other ways to measure development that take into account the social, economic and environmental dimensions.
  2. The importance of having good information available for decision-makers was stressed while noting the paradoxical situation that although information and information sources are proliferating at an astounding rate, decision-makers often find it difficult to find the right kind of information that aids in decision-making. Indicators provide a means to help bridge the information gap. Although indicators have many advantages in terms of providing concise and aggregated information, they also have various pitfalls that need to be kept in mind when using them.
  3. It was noted that while environmental indicators are relatively new, the idea of sustainable development indicators is even newer. Mr. Flanders reviewed the criteria used in selecting the core set of CSD indicators and the process of consensus building that was used in selecting them. The Driving Force/State/Response (DSR) framework was explained as a means of organizing the indicators and providing an appropriate analytical framework. The CSD Work Programme on indicators was reviewed, pointing to the current status of work, including completion of the methodology sheets for each indicator that is contained in the "Blue Book." The various elements of the methodology sheets were briefly reviewed.
  4. The efforts of countries of the Latin American and Caribbean region and the interest of the participants in the work programme on indicators was greatly appreciated by DPCSD, because only through efforts at the country level would it be possible to implement the programme and see the wider use of sustainable development indicators.

V. Experiences of Countries and Agencies in Indicator Development

(Item 4 of the Agenda)

  1. Under this agenda item, the representatives of participating countries provided a brief review of their efforts and experience related to indicators of sustainable development. These reports are presented in abbreviated form in Annex III of the Report. In addition, participating agencies of the UN system were invited to make brief presentations.
  2. The representative of the UN Statistical Division, UNSD, Ms. Reena Shah, provided the workshop with an overview of the work being done in the fields of environmental statistics, indicators and accounting. This included a description of the Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics (FDES) which was endorsed by the Statistical Commission in 1984, and of related technical reports on human settlements statistics and natural environment statistics. In response to UNCED, FDES was combined with the clusters of Agenda 21 to produce a Framework for Indicators of Sustainable Development (FISD). The similarities and differences of the FDES and FISD to other indicator frameworks were noted, and it was emphasized that frameworks were an organizing tool and that one should not get confused by these slightly different approaches but focus on the indicators themselves and their policy use and analysis. The list of environmental indicators, approved by the Statistical Commission at its twenty-eighth session for international data compilation by UNSD, was presented. The main methodological work in the area of integrated environmental and economic accounting was also introduced.
  3. More generally, it was noted that UNSD obtains official data from national statistical services where they have undergone rigorous statistical procedures to ensure validity and reliability and have been compiled according to common definitions, standards and classifications set by the Statistical Commission. The meeting was also informed that in response to the recent major United Nations conferences in the social field two significant achievements had taken place: the endorsement of a minimum national social data set (MNSDS) by the Statistical Commission and the output by the Population Division of DESIPA of a Wall Chart on Basic Social Services for All (BSSA), consisting of 12 BSSA indicators.

VI. Small Group Sessions:

a. The Selection of Priority Indicators of Sustainable Development.

(Item 5 (a) of the Agenda)

  1. The First Small Working Group Session had before it the CSD Preliminary Working List as contained in the Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development (September 1996) and the UN publication "Indicators of Sustainable Development: Framework and Methodologies." Delegates discussed and determined their priority issues and selected those indicators most appropriate to measure sustainable development in their country.
  2. The main purpose of this exercise was to have a clear idea of the process of selection and prioritization of sustainable development indicators based on the CSD list. The CSD List of indicators facilitates the process of indicator selection by offering a common base or platform for national indicator selection and prioritization. Participants recognized that the selection of priorities and related indicators can be a complex process, particularly at the national level where many stakeholders have to be involved. Simulation of this process during the workshop helped participants gave insight into the possible difficulties to be encountered.

b. The Indicator Methodology Sheets.

(Item 5 (b) of the Agenda)

  1. The purpose of the second small group discussion was to allow participants to become familiar with the methodology sheets contained in the UN publication Indicators of Sustainable Development: Framework and Methodologies. Participants were requested to review a sampling of the methodology sheets for some of the priority indicators identified in the first small group session. Groups were asked to comment on the adequacy of the methodology sheets, to discuss current use of the indicator, and to reflect on data availability.
  2. Despite the general unfamiliarity with the collection of methodology sheets, participants felt that they represent an effective and concrete tool for countries to select and develop priority indicators relevant to national priorities and programs. The translation of the methodology sheets is considered crucial and a strategic issue for developing indicators in Latin American countries. Within countries, participants recognized the need to engage a wide diversity of interests to assist with the evaluation and application of the methodology sheets. For many methodology sheets, groups reported that the indicators were already developed. Data availability, however represents a constraint for other methodology sheets. Participants emphasized the need to strengthen the use of indicators in country decision-making processes.

c. The Guidelines for National Testing of Indicators of Sustainable Development.

(Item 5 (c) of the Agenda)

  1. The Third Small Group Session had before it the Guidelines for National Testing. The representative of DPCSD pointed out that the testing phase is voluntary and that testing arrangements may vary from country to country. The Guidelines for National Testing as possible procedures would help to obtain a common understanding of the testing and comparable results from the evaluation. The idea of working in partnership through twinning arrangements during the testing phase was stressed. Since the testing process is a resource-intensive process, a pragmatic approach would be necessary.
  2. The establishment of a national coordinating mechanism and the appointment of a focal point in the country were recommended. Whereas existing institutional arrangements and experience should be used, wherever feasible, the widest possible participation among all stakeholders involved including the National Commission for Sustainable Development, relevant ministries as well as statistical offices, non-governmental organizations and the scientific community should be considered.

VII. Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. The participants found the Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development to be very useful for better appreciation of the relationship between priority setting and measurement and the methodological issues related to sustainable development indicators. The background information, provided, particularly the UN publication: "Indicators of Sustainable Development: Framework and Methodologies" was acknowledged as a useful starting point for developing a national indicator programme, however, the translation of the methodology sheets into Spanish is considered a crucial and strategic step for developing indicators in Latin American countries.
  2. The small group discussions were seen as useful way to introduce countries to the process of indicator development and testing and problems of selecting indicators in relation to national priorities and developing related methodologies.
  3. Participants recognized that developing and applying indicators would take time, effort, resources and commitment over the long term. The Workshop agreed that it was necessary to be practical, pragmatic and flexible, building on strengths on individual countries.
  4. It was noted that, in many cases, information and data are already being collected for several indicators at the national level, but many gaps still exist. It was agreed that, wherever possible and appropriate, existing data and indicators should be used as the basis for indicator development. The development of composite indices for each category of indicators would be useful, and should be submitted for testing in groups of countries. Sectoral indicators are lacking and could be developed at a national level based on the specific needs of the country.
  5. Sharing of information, capacity building, and initiation of activities to exchange experiences among the testing countries and other countries interested in the process were identified as particularly important. At the national level, it is essential to develop a network of people working on this topic and the idea of a national focal point, where appropriate, was endorsed.
  6. With regard to the testing at the national level, participants felt that mechanisms for coordination should be country specific given the variety of different governmental structures. The proposal of having an inter-agency coordination mechanism at the national level to bring various stakeholders together was endorsed. Such a mechanism should include key decision making bodies such as finance, planning, national councils of sustainable development, statistical offices, environmental and sectoral ministries, where appropriate. It would be important to link the effort to the highest political levels to ensure full support for the process. A wide variety of stakeholders should be involved and participate in the process of indicator development.
  7. Further discussion and work is needed on how to get decision-makers to use indicators of sustainable development. The link between indicators and decision-makers should be based on a communications strategy. Very professional presentations would need to be developed to present information to decision-makers.
  8. While participants felt that resources would be required to initiate a national programme on indicators, the need for capacity building efforts at the country level to get the process started was particularly mentioned. Country workshops to brief working level staff on indicators could be helpful. It was felt important to mobilize technical and other forms of assistance from UNDP, the World Bank and regional institutions, such as the IDB and the OAS, in addition to national resources.
  9. Twinning arrangements were seen as useful to support the testing process. Such arrangements need not necessarily involve a developed and a developing country, but might include countries at different levels of indicators use and development.

VIII. Other Matters

(Item 7 of the Agenda)

  1. The participants expressed their sincere gratitude to the Government of Costa Rica for hosting this very useful regional workshop and complementing the Workshop with the National Conference on Indicators of Sustainable Development. The Workshop noted in this context the continuous commitment of the Government of Costa Rica to promoting the development and use of indicators of sustainable development. The participants commended the sponsors for the excellent organization of the meeting and, in particular thanked Costa Rica for the generous hospitality extended to them.
United Nations