League tables apart: Report Card 14 League Table on children and the SDGs

The League Table presented in UNICEF’s latest Innocenti Report Card 14, Building the Future: Children and the Sustainable Development Goals in Rich Countries, clearly shows which high-income countries are doing well, and which are doing poorly, in terms of achieving outcomes for their children as broadly defined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The League Table orders countries depending on how high they rank, on average, across nine SDGs, and then into three groups of ‘high’, ‘medium’; and ‘low’ performers. At the higher reaches of the table, those countries accustomed to performing well – Nordic and other western European countries – can be found. At the lower end, poorer eastern European countries, and both middle and high-income countries from the Americas, make up the numbers. Even so, in almost all cases, countries do not perform predictably across all the goals. Mexico ranks near the top in education and Norway nearer the bottom in peace and justice.

in almost all cases, countries do not perform predictably across all the goals. Mexico ranks near the top in education and Norway nearer the bottom in peace and justice.

The League Table for Report Card 14 shows greater consistency in ranking among goals that represent ‘traditional’ social policy areas (education, poverty, hunger, health, etc.) on the left-hand side of the table, and some surprises in terms of ‘newly-defined’ goals (sustainable cities, responsible consumption, peace and justice [violence]) on the right.


Findings on the newly defined goals are explained in the Report Card as new challenges for all countries, often with supranational influences, and therefore as challenges which require concerted international effort for tangible progress. In this sense, it is the first of the Innocenti Report Card series to draw out how actions in higher-income settings can have repercussions for children globally.

Another reason to look at new goals and measures is that: in order to effectively address a new social challenge, the first step is to measure it. The League Table in Report Card 14, by channeling the ambitions of the SDGs, measures some new ambitions, and so begins the process of addressing them. Some will be surprised that violence and pollution are as high as they are in countries traditionally seen as ‘successful’, or that environmental awareness can be so low. Rather than dismiss these out of hand, the League Table stands as a record of these concerns, and an incentive to further explore their determinants and to identify the means for effective change.

A League Table communicates relative success or failure ‘at a glance’. It is the shop window, announcing: “Have we got your attention yet? Come in, take a closer look around.” This is where the discussion starts, not where it ends.

As the discussion begins The League Table also provides some points for the agenda. It sets out the first ambitions for progress, provides a rationale, and suggests appropriate comparators for general learning, and perhaps even policy lessons and potential recommendations for reform. It is, after all, quite natural to take a cue from those around us, set our standards as a group, and even imitate each other. To achieve our ends, it helps to know who we might replicate, or who we can learn from.

But directions are not directives, and criticism for this type of analysis will generally start with ‘What now?’ A league table necessarily obscures the details of its parts, and so it is here that policymakers need to tease it apart to find the details on what to prioritise, and begin the process of achieving long term goals for children most effectively.

Invariably a Report Card is questioned hard about the merits of publishing a League Table including the ‘richest countries’ of the world – Germany, the US, the Nordics – with some not immediately recognized as comparators, such as Mexico and Turkey. It would be unfortunate if League Tables that reflect business-as-usual in cross-country comparative analysis were discounted for this reason.


Furthermore, critics of a statistical mind will point to the risk of encouraging policymakers to view climbing the League Table as a goal in itself. According to Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” If efforts are focused on measures intended help a country perform better on tables result in as poorly informed trade-offs between goals for children, rather than improving all goals for all children, it will not have met its purpose.

Fourteen Innocenti Report Cards and fourteen league tables later, the debate continues. With Report Card 14 we hope to bring attention to all the most pressing issues that impact upon the rights and needs of children in high-income countries – in the context of the SDGs, at this critical point in time. We hope the reaction of policy makers and duty bearers is not to immediately question the standing – though we are confident they will bear scrutiny – but instead to pay heed to where they stand on specific indicators.  On issues that matter for children, and so for the future, facing up to the challenge of these results, and learning from both successes and failures across countries, is much more important.


Dominic Richardson is education officer with UNICEF Innocenti and lead author of the key background paper paper for Report Card 14 “Comparing  child-focused SDGs in high-income countries: Indicator development and overview” . Explore the UNICEF Innocenti research catalogue for new publications. Follow UNICEF Innocenti on Twitter and sign up for e-newsletters on any page of the UNICEF Innocenti website.