Guest Post: Good Governance as a Standalone Development Goal

Daniel Dudis, Senior Policy Director for Government Accountability at Transparency International USA contributes the following guest post:

The United Nations is currently working towards developing a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will provide the framework for whatever new global commitments are agreed upon as a replacement to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015.  Many development priorities have been identified for potential inclusion among the SDGs–indeed, the most recent document from the U.N. SDG working group lists no fewer than 19 “focus areas” for potential inclusion. As is now widely recognized, the achievement of many of the traditional development goals (poverty eradication, nutrition, education, etc.) requires honest and effective governments. But it is important to go beyond that recognition and make good government–government that is both effective and free of corruption–a development goal in and of itself. In considering which development priorities to enshrine for inclusion among the future SDGs, UN member states should insist on the inclusion of “good governance” as a specific, standalone governance goal.

There is a strong case for a standalone governance goal.  Examining the MDGs and their track record over the last 13 years suggests why.  There are 8 MDGs (eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development) broken down into 18 specific targets to be measured by 48 indicators. Progress towards achieving the MDGs and reaching the specific targets has been uneven at best.  With the exception of the goal of eradicating extreme poverty, it does not appear that any of the other MDGs will be achieved by 2015. What went wrong?  What could have been done differently that would have ensured greater success?

The absence of a focus on governance seems to be among the issues that impeded progress. All of the MDGs depend on improved government service delivery; without good governance, the goals and targets become that much harder to achieve.  And yet instead of including a governance goal with specific targets, the MDGs merely included a vague “commitment” to good governance, devoid of any indicators to measure progress.  The MDGs erred in that they overlooked the foundational importance of governance in facilitating and catalyzing international development.

The SDGs must not make the same mistake. Success will at least partially depend on good governance practices being in place.  For that reason, it is imperative to include a stand-alone governance goal with specific measurable targets.

What might such a governance goal look like?  Put another way, what are the essential components of good governance?  And what specific targets should be chosen for a governance goal?

  • Effective service delivery is certainly one very important part of good governance. As such, a governance goal should aim to enhance the capacity and accountability of public institutions.  Targets might include the existence of a well-financed independent audit agency and steady improvement in effective service delivery.
  • Hand in hand with accountability, one finds transparency.  Transparency helps to ensure accountability and is an essential part of any governance goal.  There are many different forms that transparency may take. At a minimum, transparency should enable all people to obtain timely and reliable information from their government.  Moreover, governments should publish fiscal and procurement information in a timely fashion. Corporations should be required to provide beneficial ownership information and to disclose all payments to governments and government officials while governments should join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.  And donor nations and organizations should be required to disclose the details of their aid budgets.  Transparency targets might include the existence of a robust right to information law and dedicated web portals containing complete and up to date budgetary, procurement, beneficial ownership, and international assistance information.
  • The third main component of good governance is a vigorous commitment to rooting out corruption and a respect for the rule of law.  While transparency will go a long way towards reducing corruption, more is required.  Governments should implement a meaningful legal framework against bribery, corruption, and money laundering.  Law enforcement and the court system should be politically independent and non-partisan, and should receive adequate resources.  High levels of corruption and lack of respect for the rule of law are two of the biggest obstacles to economic development in many developing countries; given that economic development is sure to a key focus of the SDGs, it is therefore doubly important to include anticorruption and rule of law targets and indicators as part of a governance goal.

Any governance goal must also include indicators that allow for progress to be measured.  There are abundant indices and data sets that could be used as indicators of government accountability, transparency, corruption, and the rule of law.  Any indicators should be reliable and independent, and should be acceptable to both governments and civil society.

A stand-alone governance goal that aims to enhance the capacity and accountability of government institutions, promote widespread transparency, reduce corruption, and strengthen the rule of law will serve as a solid foundation upon which all of the other SDGs may build.  Without such an explicit, measurable commitment to good governance, the chances that any future SDGs will be attained are compromised


6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Good Governance as a Standalone Development Goal

  1. Hi Daniel, thanks for your post. I certainly agree that good governance is important, even essential, to the achievement of development goals. That being said, I can think of a couple of reasons that might cause hesitation to adopt these guidelines or goals.
    First, I don’t know too much about the SDGs, but I think it’s fair to say that the MDGs are based on criteria which are both universally (or near-universally) accepted and uncontroversial. You could make an argument that transparency (as you define it) is an uncontroversial building-block for a health society, but I’m not sure that this precept is widely accepted enough to be included in a program designed to be as broadly applicable as the SDGs. Existing rule of law promotion, for example, has seen some pushback (e.g.,;, and I think it’s fair to say that it might not be compatible with some (probably quite popular) conceptions of how governments should be run. I would be a little worried that including a more idiosyncratic or controversial goal within the SDGs might increase resistance to their application, even when many of them are unobjectionable.
    Second, and again referring to the MDGs, most of those goals are based, at least to some extent, on easily-determinable numerical factors (e.g., Target 5.A, reducing maternal mortality by 75%). I’m not sure that the factors you suggest are sufficiently measurable to fit this type of framework. Even if they are measurable, the cost of doing so is likely to be high, given the political costs of labeling a country as out of compliance with good governance norms. The OECD Anti-Bribery review process, for example, is complex and expensive, even though it only deals with countries which are relatively affluent and accepting of international scrutiny. It is likely to be much more difficult to do so in the world’s poorest countries.
    In the end, I’m sensitive to your suggestions, and I would like to see them incorporated somewhere, but I’m not sure that they are specific or robust enough to form stand-alone goals in and of themselves.

  2. Thanks for this post — I think it has the potential to stimulate a fascinating debate.

    I don’t think I’m quite as skeptical as Phil about the utility of a stand-alone governance SDG that incorporates anticorruption principles. That said, I do have some questions about how this Goal would be operationalized.

    I’m not terribly familiar with how the MDGs are written or function, but I do know that in the domestic context there are arguments that transparency and accountability are not unadulterated goods. Transparency and accountability, according to some scholars, can create problems insofar as they encourage government behavior motivated more by the desire to influence public opinion and build popular support than to institute the policies that are actually best for the country. These concerns seem like they might be particularly significant in low income countries and new democracies, where people have less information and public preferences are (presumably) less likely to reflect optimal policies.

    I’d be curious on your take on whether these sort of arguments work in the international context, particularly in developing countries. Also, if you agree that they do, how would go about designing a governance-centric SDG to account for the problem?

  3. Thanks for this, Daniel. I have a general question: how explicit should these good governance goals be? Should we have very specific targets, or allow for some flexibility, in which case we risk countries adopting different interpretations of good governance?

  4. First off, I’d like to thank everyone for the very interesting (and difficult) questions. I’m glad to see that this subject piqued your interest as I believe it to be very important. It appears to me that you raise four big questions:

    1. Is the transparency/good governance/anti-corruption/rule of law agenda sufficiently accepted/non-controversial to be consecrated as an SDG?
    2. How does one reliably measure national progress on transparency/good governance/anti-corruption/rule of law?
    3. Can too much transparency and accountability lead to the type of poll-driven politics that seek to please the public sometimes at the expense of legitimate policy goals?
    4. How explicit should a governance goal be?

    With respect to the first question, I think that before we turn to expert opinion on the matter, we should start by looking at what people around the world think. Is there a general consensus among the people that good governance is something that they want? That corruption is bad?
    There is a lot of evidence that people are crying out for good governance, that they realize that it is very important. The (admittedly unscientific) United Nations My World survey ( places an honest and responsive government as the fourth highest priority among those who have responded to the survey. Governance is ranked higher than food security, clean water, personal security, political freedoms, a clean environment, and better infrastructures among other priorities. The (scientific) results of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer ( also suggest that most people see corruption as big problem. If one looks at the country by country results, one sees that in most countries, people believe corruption to be a serious problem. One also needs only to open a newspaper to see that in countries as diverse as Taiwan, Ukraine, Turkey, India, and Brazil, people have been passionately calling for more transparency, less corruption, and better governance. In sum, I think it is safe to say that there is a global popular consensus in favor of more transparency, less corruption, better governance, and rule of law.

    Moving from popular opinion to expert opinion, I will agree with you that there are researchers who question certain parts of the good governance agenda. But it would appear to me that often times their criticisms are not so much along the lines of “rule of law is not important,” but are rather based on the difficulties of defining and implementing rule of law reforms and then isolating their causal contribution to development outcomes. That being said, I believe that the majority of researchers who have studied the subject have come to the conclusion that there is a clear correlation between governance and development outcomes (if you’re interested, I can provide you with the cites for some scholarly articles along these lines). However, it’s also probable that causality runs both ways—that while good governance improves development outcomes, a better educated, healthier, and wealthier population is also likely to demand better governance.

    So, to sum up, I think that there’s a pretty clear popular and academic consensus in favor of the good governance agenda. That being said, I agree with you that governance is not entirely devoid of controversy the way, say, ending poverty or reducing child mortality are. I don’t think, however, that simply because some governments with poor governance records may object to a governance goal is a reason in and of itself to abandon the push for a governance goal. Of course, the UN process that leads to the creation and adoption of the SDGs is a consensual one, and it may be (I hope that this is not the case) that in order to get through goals on poverty, health, education, and the environment, governance will have to be sacrificed. Were this to happen, I believe that it would make achieving the other sectoral SDGs that much more difficult for the reasons argued in my original blog post.

    With respect to the second question, obviously a lot of what makes up governance—transparency, rule of law, accountability, anti-corruption—is hard to measure. That being said, there are some fairly easy indicators, especially for transparency. For example, as suggested in my blog post, countries could be judged on whether or not they timely and accurately published budgetary, procurement, beneficial ownership, and international development assistance information. Things get harder for rule of law, accountability, and anti-corruption, due to the inherent difficulties in measuring these concepts. There are, however, many indices developed by NGOs, the World Bank, and other institutions that purport to measure these concepts or at least perceptions of them. These indices, or a basket of them, could serve as indicators for many aspects of rule or law, anti-corruption, and accountability. I admit that these indices are not perfect, but I do think that they would capture the essential of what the indicators would need to measure.

    On the third question, I’m not sure I see the link between greater transparency and accountability and more poll-driven politics. Let’s take the example of expensive and inefficient (yet publicly popular) fuel subsidies that are all too common, from Ukraine to Nigeria. Greater transparency would mean that the full cost of these fuel subsidies would become more widely known, especially as compared to the overall government budget and government spending on health, education, infrastructure, pensions, etc. I’m not saying that greater budget transparency would necessarily make public support for fuel subsidies evaporate or even decrease as the public became able to see the trade-offs between government spending on fuel subsidies and government spending on health, education, and welfare, but I don’t see how greater transparency would increase support for such an already politically popular program.

    With respect to the last question, I think that a governance goal should be fairly explicit, setting specific targets for service delivery, transparency, rule of law, and anti-corruption. Some targets, like the transparency targets mentioned above, should be the same across all countries, but others, such as targets for service delivery and anti-corruption should be based on a country’s progress, i.e. it is unreasonable to expect a country with a very low starting service delivery capacity to meet the same target as a country with a much higher (although still low) starting service delivery capacity.

  5. Pingback: Inequality & good governance: key to the fight against global poverty | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC

  6. Pingback: Inequality & good governance: key to the fight against global poverty | Blog | Public Finance International

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