Washington Group Questions and the Sustainable Development Goals

By Dr. Daniel Mont, 1 March 2017


The overriding principle of the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the global eradication of disadvantage through the improvement of situations for all peoples.  This idea is encapsulated in the slogan, “leave no one behind.” To know if groups of people are being left behind, it is important to compare progress achieved in SDG indicators in all population groups with particular focus on all vulnerable groups.  This process is referred to as disaggregation.  A country as a whole can be making progress on an indicator – for example, poverty – but that does not necessarily mean that all groups in that country are achieving progress, let alone equally.

For this reason, the chapeau of the SDGs notes the importance of disaggregating data by characteristics associated with exclusion and vulnerability, including disability. As the WHO/World Bank World Report on Disability and much subsequent research has shown, people with disabilities disproportionately live in poverty and are excluded from social and economic activities. Without disaggregation by disability status, it is not possible to monitor the progress and outcomes of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda activities in a way that documents if people with disabilities are indeed being left behind or not.

To disaggregate data, it is necessary to include a disability indicator and the outcome indicator (e.g. the SDG indicator) in the same data collection activity.  The SDG framework provides guidance on how to measure the SDG indicators.  Fortunately, the Washington Group Short Set (WG-SS) provides us with a high quality, low cost, quickly implementable, internationally comparable tool for  identifying most people with disabilities.



The next step is to identify the appropriate data collection activity.  One option is a special survey designed to include all of the SDG indicators to be monitored, as well as the disaggregation indicators. Such an enterprise would be prohibitively costly to conduct, regardless of periodicity.  Such a survey would be required to track all of the relevant SDGs appropriate for disaggregation by disability. A recent report by the Washington Group identifies 65  person-level indicators across a wide variety of sectors that are appropriate for disaggregation by disability. Even if this was done, there would be no guarantee that an indicator in a special disability survey would be collected in the same way as that indicator is collected for the general population for SDG indicator reporting, further impeding accurate comparisons of the relative progress of those with and without disabilities. If the special survey were to be used for all SDG monitoring, it would also need to provide for disaggregation on all other relevant characteristics.  A survey of this size and magnitude is not feasible or sustainable from a cost or logistical standpoint.  Moreover, it would not mainstream the ability to evaluate the status of persons with disability into national statistical systems, thus putting future collection of this information in jeopardy.

A better approach for data collection is to include the WG-SS on the data instruments that will already be used for monitoring the SDGs. This not only reduces costs by utilizing the existing statistical infrastructure, but insures that an indicator reported for the disabled and non-disabled populations has been generated in exactly the same manner, making them comparable. Simply by adding the WG-SS to an existing survey – which adds between one and two minutes to the length of the survey – allows for the disaggregation of ALL indicators generated by that survey.

That is why the WG-SS, which has been tested and validated in many countries and used in over 60 countries, from low to high income, has been recommended by the United Nations Statistical Commission and the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s Council of European Statisticians as the method for collecting information on disability in the upcoming 2020 round of censuses, and endorsed by a Disability Data Expert Group under the auspices of the UN Department of Economic and Social as the means to disaggregate the SDG’s by disability status. The WG-SS has also been adopted by the UN Economic and Social Commission of Asia and the Pacific as a way of identifying people with disabilities for constructing their Incheon “Making the Right Real” Strategy indicators, and by Development Initiative’s P20 effort on monitoring outcomes for the world’s poorest twenty percent.

Disaggregating SDG indicators is not only feasible, but straightforward. A fair number of countries of different income levels are already including the WG-SS in their data collection instruments. Even more are including disability questions in some capacity, so replacing them with the WG-SS questions would add no time to some existing surveys.  Expanded use of the WG-SS, and using them in place of these other questions, will improve the quality of that disaggregation and provide consistency, without imposing noticeable burden on current data collection programs.

This page was updated on: Wednesday, March 1, 2017