What can’t be counted doesn’t count: tracking financing for sustainable development

Julie Seghers Economics, Inequality

This week a group of development experts are meeting to discuss ‘Total Official Support for Sustainable Development’, or TOSSD. This is a new statistical metric that’s been in the making for almost ten years and is meant to capture global efforts in support of sustainable development. ActionAid, AidWatch Canada and Oxfam International are releasing a discussion paper to shed light on what has been a niche conversation to date, but could significantly shape the future of development finance.

British psychologist Joan Freeman once titled an article ‘If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’. Metrics do matter. If we can’t track what resources the international community is allocating to turn the ambitions of Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into reality, then how can we determine if we’re making progress?

The UN’s move from the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) to the SDGs (2015-2030) implied a shift from a fairly focused development agenda funded in great part through Official Development Assistance (ODA) to a much broader and ambitious agenda funded through a wider pool of development finance. The UN estimates that there is a $2.5 trillion annual financing gap for meeting the SDGs by 2030, and debates have focused on how to fill this gap, going beyond ODA.

Discussions about TOSSD slowly took shape starting in 2012 at the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC). Many in the development community, including civil society organizations (CSOs), are looking (critically) at the role of non-ODA flows of public money and publicly leveraged private finance. These are often non-concessional in nature and directed at so-called International Public Goods, such as climate change mitigation or development of coronavirus vaccines.

Here’s the formal definition of TOSSD:

‘The Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (TOSSD) statistical measure includes all officially-supported resource flows to promote sustainable development in developing countries and to support development enablers and/or address global challenges at regional or global levels.’

TOSSD has received official recognition in the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda and from the G7 and G20. It now is the subject of difficult discussions at the UN on including this metric among the SDG indicators.

The DAC – a club of rich-country governments – did most of the work to develop TOSSD, although in recent years the work was conducted via a more inclusive and transparent Task Force process involving low, and middle-income country technical experts and proactive CSO observers. Currently, the future of TOSSD and hard governance issues stir heated debates.

Our report sheds light on how TOSSD works in practice as well as on its ambitions and shortcomings. The report looks into the political perspectives on this new metric, examining its strengths and significant challenges. We conclude: whatever you may think about TOSSD, if you care about development, you’d better know about it.

Through a comprehensive literature review and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, we explore three basic perspectives on TOSSD:

1) Agenda 2030 still lacks a comprehensive metric that would systematically track all financial flows supporting the SDGs, and TOSSD could help fill that gap.

TOSSD has the potential for capturing financing flows based on a ‘recipient perspective’ (i.e. tracking the funds actually received by low- and middle-income countries), particularly for non-ODA flows, and could offer a framework that rigorously tabulates the details of both concessional and non-concessional finance. It presents opportunities to engage many development actors, including South-South Cooperation providers, and profiles low- and middle-income countries’ contributions to International Public Goods, such as refugee protection.

 2) TOSSD could provide a valuable metric for strengthening the transparency of development finance flows, but currently has significant flaws in the scope of data collected and in its governance. 

There is room for scepticism about key aspects of TOSSD as set out so far and about donor political motivations in pushing another metric that can easily further marginalize stagnant levels of ODA. The latter is uniquely important in reaching marginalized communities and for ‘leaving no one behind’, particularly given the recent urgency of maximizing grants to partner countries grappling with COVID-19.

TOSSD’s potential in terms of bringing a recipient perspective is also severely compromised by its ill-defined inclusion of flows relating to International Public Goods. These can be of relevance to low- and middle- income countries, but spent in donor countries. This is because Agenda 2030 has a universal character, with its many goals and targets. These tensions are creating layers of complexity, potentially artificially inflating funding levels, and confusion in such areas as climate mitigation, global financial stability or using public funds to mobilize private development finance.

3) TOSSD as presented by the Task Force is neither legitimate nor necessary.

TOSSD cannot be assessed solely on technical grounds as it has been so far, but is embedded in the unequal politics of development finance, which have largely marginalized low- and middle-income countries within the UN and have deeply undermined trust. The metric avoids discussion of country ownership of development, which requires a more comprehensive approach to assessing country needs, current limitations and solutions.

TOSSD seems to have a future, albeit at this point somewhat uncertain in its scope and eventual governance.  CSOs will continue to address TOSSD from several different but valid entry points, as participant observers, outside critics, or challengers of Northern donors’ power in defining the global development agenda. Our paper provides a foundation for an informed debate within and among CSOs, and with the broader international community.


Brian Tomlinson


Julie Seghers


Luca de Fraia