Indicators: What are they and how do you recognise a good one?

Data, Monitoring & Evaluation

“In 2020, Arqaam poured through thousands of indicators in its efforts to develop the Logframe Lab tool, a web application that helps organisations build their project’s logframe. Logframe Lab’s algorithms match a project idea with the most relevant metrics, drawing from an extensive database of standardised indicators.”


In the development sphere, donors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and beneficiaries need to communicate the value and benefits of a project. When talking about these benefits, it’s helpful to have a standardised set of terminology. This helps everyone understands exactly what the other means. Additionally, it helps to compare approaches across countries and organisations.

The business world uses key performance indicators (KPIs) to track progress. The development sector uses indicators. These are measurable factors you can use to objectively track the progress and impact of a project.

Small community organisations new to development may find the subject of indicators overwhelming. After all, there are thousands to choose from depending on the topic of your work, the type of action you are taking and your funders. Choosing appropriate indicators can be a daunting task.

In 2020, Arqaam poured through thousands of indicators to develop the Logframe Lab tool. A web application, Logframe Lab helps organisations build their project’s logframe. Logframe Lab’s algorithms match a project with the most relevant metrics, drawing from an extensive database of standardised indicators.

In this article, we will explain why development actors need to pay close attention to the indicators they select . We’ll explore how to recognise the difference between a good and bad indicator.  We will also offer a short overview of the main organisations that have defined their own lists of indicators.


The importance of indicators for your development project


Indicators are vital tool, particularly in relation to logical frameworks (logframes or result frameworks) for monitoring and evaluation. The indicators an organisation selects will determine the impact of the project.

When using logframes for monitoring, project planners will have ideally defined an impact that they want to achieve, such as ‘have drinkable water in X country’. They then follow a logical results chain, defining outcomes to support this impact. One outcome could be a certain number of water filtration sites. Another could be working with polluters to decrease water pollutants. Project planners use these outcomes to develop outputs – ‘sub-goals’ that help to achieve outcomes. Staff can use outputs to design activities. The main difference between outputs and outcomes is that the project controls the outputs. Alternatively, outcomes are the changes that occur as a result of the outputs.

Once the results chain is completed  – and only at this point –planners can begin developing appropriate indicators. If the project is related to the environment, indicators might include the level of pollutants in the water supply of a vulnerable village. If the project is health related, indicators might include the percentage of children immunised against measles.

Finally, the project planners will set the goals for the project. The budget will play a role in determining the goals. For the environmental project, the goal could be a reduction of pollutants in the water by 80%. For the health project, the goal could be an increase in the percentage of immunised children to 90%. Additionally, project staff must always have a baseline. This will help staff determine the success of the project.


Types of indicators

Indicators can be either quantitative or qualitative. As you might guess, quantitative usually means they are numerical. For example, ‘The proportion of children who are malnourished’, ‘The total level of nitrogen in well water’, or ‘The number of journalists jailed per year’. Qualitative indicators are less common and would include statements such as ‘Stable border relations’ or ‘Empowerment of land owners’.

There are three types of indicators. They are organised based on the three levels in a logical framework (aka, logframe): outputs, outcomes, and impact.

Output indicators measure project outputs. For example, an educational project might include an indicator such as ‘The number of adult literacy programs set up in rural towns in the country’. Outcome indicators measure the medium-term impacts of a project. For the educational project, this might include ‘The percentage of working-age adults in rural towns who can read and write at a functional level’.

Impact indicators look at the longer-term effects of the project. An example of an impact indicator for the educational project might be ‘The level of unemployment in the country’. Ideally, project staff will use data from existing sources – such as national statistics or surveys – to develop the indicators, instead of collecting their own data.


Recognising the good from the bad


What is the difference between a good and bad indicator? How can you tell whether an indicator is good or not? The quality of the indicators you select will be crucial to your ability to monitor and evaluate the success of your project. At Arqaam, we recommend you think RACER when choosing indicators: Relevant, Accepted, Credible, Easy, and Robust.

Relevant – it should be closely linked with the results that you want to reach.

Accepted – It should be accepted by your staff, stakeholders, and other users.

Credible – it should be accessible to non-experts, unambiguous, and easy to interpret.

Easy – it should be feasible to monitor and collect data for this indicator at a reasonable cost.

Robust – it should not be easily to manipulate.

Here are some other good rules of thumb to keep in mind when choosing indicators for your development project:

  • They should not include targets. These should be in a different column of your logframe.
  • They should only measure one value. You should hardly ever use ‘and/or’ in them.
  • They should be disaggregated where possible, into groups that are mutually exclusive.
  • They should be reliable, in that the indicator can be measured the same way each time, regardless of who is doing the measurement.
  • They should always be neutral. They should never use words such as ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’.

It is important to always respect local laws and customs – as well as data privacy and informed consent – when you are thinking of indicators and how you will collect data and from whom.


A look at the main indicator lists


The UN has one of the most well-known lists of public indicators. It is related to the institution’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by all UN Member States in 2015. Any development project related to these goals can select from a broad range of indicators. The UN’s SDG indicator database is categorised by goal, and then broken down by targets. For example, UN SDG Goal #3 is ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’ and includes 13 targets. For target 3.1, ‘By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births’, there are two different indicators listed. One is ‘Maternal mortality ratio’ and the other is ‘Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel’.

The World Development Indicators, maintained by the World Bank, doesn’t only list indicators, it also provides data for the indicators. Some data goes back as far as 50 years. The indicators are separated into six ‘Data Themes’, such as ‘Poverty and Inequality’, ‘Environment’, ‘Economy’, and ‘States and Markets’.

Additionally, many funding institutions have lists of indicators they focus on, so development actors seeking project funding can better tailor their proposals. For instance, the European Commission maintains lists of indicators specific to its many funds. These include the European Regional Development Fund, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, among others. Another example is the Council of Europe. It maintains an ‘Indicator Framework on Culture and Democracy’, which assesses how culture contributes to democracy and ‘the economic efficiency of financing culture’.


Logframe Lab: bringing it all together in one place

Standardisation across countries, regions and projects is the main benefit of these publicly-available indicator lists. No development actor needs to spend time and effort to create new ones from scratch. There is very likely an indicator that already exists for their purpose.

Arqaam’s Logframe Lab compiles all these indicators into one handy tool. When you upload your project proposal, it helps you identify appropriate indicators based on the words used to describe your project idea. The indicators in our database include ones from organisations such as the UN, the EU, the World Bank and other sources that have shared them online. We also continue to update and expand our database with indicators of supporters.

If you want to share indicators that your organisation is using, or if you’re aware of any that are missing from our database, head over to the website. There you can download an Excel form where you can enter your indicators, and then submit them for review.

Read more from the Arqaam blog HERE.