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