Visions and Indicators

The spectrum of information needed to assess and monitor sustainability parameters for resources is beyond the scope of any Pacific island ministry. All sectors of the government and the private and community level sectors are concerned, in one way or another, with the sustainability of any resource. It makes sense for all the interested parties to work together in gathering and sharing the information and the decision making process. In the Pacific islands, the communities are the primary owners and users of the land (and often the sea) resources. Their exclusion from the information gathering and decision making process has been at the core of misunderstanding and the resultant conflicts with sustainable resource use.

Gathering information in any one of the sustainability facets is a complex process requiring input from people who are specially trained. The existing approach to information gathering quickly winds up with a wide range of information constraints.

To combat this, Agenda 21 recommended a completely different, more integrated approach.

Visions and expectations

Agenda 21. Chapter 40. Information For Decision-making

40.4 Commonly used indicators such as the gross national product (GNP) and measurements of individual resource or pollution flows do not provide adequate indications of sustainability. Methods for assessing interactions between different sectoral environmental, demographic, social and developmental parameters are not sufficiently developed or applied. Indicators of sustainable development need to be developed to provide solid bases for decision-making at all levels and to contribute to a self-regulating sustainability of integrated environment and development systems.

The foundation of Agenda 21 is the concept of developing a united vision of the future, determining actions required to achieve this vision, and monitoring progress to see if the targets are being reached. Participatory methods are ideal for getting people to sit down and come up with a community (or company) vision of what they would like their future world to be like.

Future visions are always comparisons. A future cannot be imagined without relating it to what things were like in the past and how they are changing in the present. All development plans and strategies contain information on the condition of resources, but the vision they offer is filled with conflicts because they are not common visions. In addition, they lack specific, measurable indicators of success.

Indicators of success

The first step in developing indicators is to develop a common vision for the community. The values held by a community help define the vision. The indicators are what the people want to see or have in their future world. These aspirations are not an end in themselves; they are a tool for evaluating progress that can be used for decision making, planning and monitoring to achieve the vision.

Evaluating progress towards sustainability requires the use of indicators that can measure changes across economic, social and environmental dimensions rather than just measuring changes within these. In the past, statistical indicators of how well society was doing included:

  • economic progress (GDP, growth rates, unemployment, incomes),
  • social well being (infant mortality, years of schooling, number of people per dwelling),
  • environmental monitoring (air and water quality, emission of pollutants, hectares of protected areas).

These indicators gave a narrow view of a particular sector or problem rather than a holistic picture of the community and its environment. Indicators of sustainability need to look at all three dimensions - environment, society and economy. An important aspect of developing these indicators at the local level is that they need to be defined, developed and used by the community. The community must be stewards of the indicators and the indicators need to be determined through a democratic process.

Need for baseline information.

Evaluation of environmental change requires baseline information to measure against. Baselines allow measurements of significant change in a selected attribute. In that sense, baselines form part of the set of environmental indicators. They can show change over time or the difference between different areas at a particular time.

To develop indicators, a number of questions need to be asked:

  • Does the indicator measure something that is important to the community?
  • Will the indicator be important to a future society?
  • Will the indicator lead to awareness or action?
  • Is the indicator measurable (or already measured)?
  • How often does the indicator change?

Types of indicators include:

  • Biological indicators (numbers of plants or animals per unit of area) measure composite environmental conditions. If key species recover, the collective environment must be doing better.
  • Physical indicators such as water clarity, degree of air pollution, complaints of noise pollution, etc.
  • Process indicators, such as how well minority groups are included, community satisfaction with government processes, etc;
  • Conflict indicators, e.g. the size of "areas of comfort" that residents draw on maps of their neighborhood;
  • Information Flow indicators, such as community-based media, availability and use of meeting places, access to environmental information;
  • Indicators of the community's patterns of relationship with the environment, e.g. litter, vandalism, use of the public transport, use of unleaded fuels, solar water heaters, amount of electricity used, recycling, etc.
  • Health indicators, such as numbers of people smoking, potable water availability, use of exercise facilities such as running or bicycle paths, availability of organic foods, etc.

The essential points to remember when developing indicators are:

  • Indicators are measures of community values and as such need to be firmly grounded in the community.
  • Although the framework for indicators can be applied nationally, the most effective indicators will be community-specific and determined by the community itself.
  • The community must be involved in all stages of the process of developing indicators.
  • The process of selecting indicators is as much political as technical.
  • Application of indicators has to be systematic rather than ad-hoc.
  • Both quantitative and qualitative indicators can be used, depending on the needs and circumstances.

Good indicators should (CSIRO 1996):

  • be a robust indicator of environmental change
  • be sensitive to environmental change
  • reflect a fundamental or highly valued aspect of the environment
  • be either national in scope or applicable to regional environmental issues of national significance
  • provide an early warning of potential problems
  • be capable of being monitored to provide statistically verifiable and reproducible data that show trends over time and, preferably, apply to a broad range of environmental regions
  • be scientifically credible
  • be easy to understand
  • be monitored regularly with relative ease
  • be cost-effective
  • be as aggregative as possible (that is, amenable to combination with other indicators to produce more general information about environmental conditions)
  • have relevance to policy and management needs
  • contribute to monitoring of progress towards implementing commitments in nationally significant environmental policies
  • where possible and appropriate, facilitate community involvement
  • contribute to the fulfillment of reporting obligations under international agreements
  • where possible and appropriate, use existing commercial and managerial indicators
  • where possible and appropriate, be consistent and comparable with indicators used in other countries.

Indicators of a sustainable community (Source N.Z. Ministry for the Environment 1994).

The following indicators were developed through a process of community participation in New Zealand:

Wild salmon runs through local streams.
Number of good air quality days per year.
Percentage of streets meeting "pedestrian-friendly" criteria.
Population and resources
Total population of the city (with annual growth rates).
Gallons of water consumed per capita.
Tons of solid waste generated and recycled per capita per year.
Vehicle miles traveled per capita and gasoline consumption per capita.
Renewable and non-renewable energy per capita.
Percentage of employment concentrated in the top ten employers.
Hours of paid employment at the average wage required to support basic needs.
Percentage of children living in poverty.
Housing affordability gap.
Health care expenditures per capita.
Culture and Society
Percentage of infants born with low birth weight (by ethnic groups).
Juvenile crime rate.
Percentage of youth participating in some form of community service.
Percent of population voting.
Usage rates for libraries.
Public participation in the arts.


While indicators derived from consultation express community aspirations and are powerful tools in developing awareness and educating, the crucial decisions to take action, to do something, need organizational, community and personal targets. People need to know the effect of their actions. Assessing the state of the environment helps establish the base data for indicators and decision-making targets.

Organizations often set targets in terms of performance; monies spent, funds obtained, numbers of meetings held, numbers of people trained, or hours worked without accidents. None of these are suitable indicators of the sustainable success of the organization. A regional youth programme, for example, has been running at the South Pacific Commission for 32 years, and in terms of organizational sustainability it is a success. However it has done nothing measurable to improve the condition of the youth of the Pacific islands (Dunn, personal communication). Nor does the program have any targets set or methods of monitoring its success.

By contrast, a coastal fisheries development project in Lae, PNG, used a series of indicators to monitor progress. One objective was to increase export of fish to markets outside of Lae. The fisheries team set targets of 10% increase per year and then determined the actual progress each year.

In 1993, an Agenda 21 community in New Zealand (Waitakere City) set a target of reducing solid waste by weight at the baling station by 20% by 1995. 19% of this was achieved in the first year and the community decided to increase the target to 40%.

Health planners have used targets to assess public health management for many years. These are invaluable in gaining public and financial support to continue making progress. At present, these sorts of target graphs are absent from environmental action plans and country development schemes.

Simple targets can provide complex interactive information about people's behavior. A community giant clam sanctuary in the Kingdom of Tonga set a specific goal for the community. Nobody should take the giant clams from the sanctuary. It was an easily measured goal as a person from the village could simply count the giant clams periodically to see if they all remained. For the clams to remain, the pattern of behavior of the whole community and visitors to the community, had to change from the customary pattern of marine resource use which was, "if I don't take it, the next person will".

Targets are worthless without monitoring. Because of the expense of monitoring, the best targets are ones the people who are involved can measure themselves. A youth program, for example, should set targets based on what the youth want to see happen in their future and rely on a system of reportage from the youth to determine if the targets are being reached or not. This makes the process of monitoring much less expensive and much more meaningful.