The Global Drylands Observing System proposed in this issue should reduce the huge uncertainty about the extent of desertification and the rate at which it is changing, and provide valuable information to scientists, planners and policy-makers. However, it needs careful design if information outputs are to be scientifically credible and salient to the needs of people living in dry areas. Its design would benefit from a robust, integrated scientific framework like the Dryland Development Paradigm to guide/inform the development of an integrated global monitoring and assessment programme (both directly and indirectly via the use of modelling). Various types of dryland system models (e.g. environmental, socioeconomic, land-use cover change, and agent-based) could provide insights into how to combine the plethora of monitoring information gathered on key socioeconomic and biophysical indicators to develop integrated assessment models. This paper shows how insights from models can help in selecting and integrating indicators, interpreting synthetic trends, incorporating cross-scalar processes, representing spatio-temporal variation, and evaluating uncertainty. Planners could use this integrated global monitoring and assessment programme to help implement effective policies to address the global problem of desertification. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.