Guest Post: Why We Should Be Excited About SDG 16

GAB is delighted to welcome back Daniel Dudis, Senior Policy Director at Transparency International-USA, who contributes the following guest post:

On September 25th, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs identify development priorities and set measurable targets for progress that are to be met by 2030. They also replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 and set to expire at the end of this year. The MDGs were aimed primarily at improving living conditions in developing countries, and focused on reducing extreme poverty and improving health, education, sanitation, and nutrition. Unfortunately, progress towards achieving the MDGs has been uneven at best. Notably absent from the MDGs were any commitments on improving governance or reducing corruption. Given that in most countries, government is the primary service provider for healthcare, education, and sanitation, and that government provides nutrition assistance and sets economic policy, the absence of any commitments to improve governance or reduce corruption was a notable blind spot. Honest, accountable, efficient government is the foundation upon which economic development and improved service delivery are built.

Happily, goal 16 of the SDGs fills this lacuna. Goal 16, which seeks to promote just, peaceful, and inclusive societies, includes (among other governance-related targets) significant reductions in illicit financial flows, progress on the recovery and return of stolen assets, and substantial reductions in corruption and bribery.

It is easy to be skeptical about the utility of ambitious international agreements such as the SDGs. Indeed, Matthew’s post last week, which criticized the Goal 16’s anticorruption targets on the grounds that they are ill-suited to quantitative measurement of progress, and Rick’s post yesterday, exemplify that view. Such skepticism, however, is misplaced. The inclusion of these targets in Goal 16 of the SDGs is an important step forward as it represents a clear endorsement by the community of nations that good governance and the fight against corruption are integral parts of the global development agenda.

Despite the uneven progress towards achieving the MDGs, the MDG experience showed that a list of goals and targets had the laudatory effect of focusing both international aid efforts and developing countries’ domestic spending on programs aimed at meeting those targets. The SDGs should do the same, but this time, the inclusion of governance and anticorruption targets will serve to help prioritize these issues for both international funders and national governments. Over the next 15 years, thanks to SDG 16, we should see more resources devoted to improving governance and fighting corruption. The greater visibility and resources that the SDGs will bring to improving governance and fighting corruption can only have a positive impact.

Aside from helping to focus the attention of the world on improving governance and fighting corruption, the SDGs are also important because, unlike the MDGs, they apply to all countries, not just to developing countries. This is a major improvement, and it is especially important with respect to Goal 16. Governance can and should be improved and corruption reduced in all countries, not just in developing countries. The United States is a case in point. According to Gallup, 75% of Americans perceive corruption to be widespread in their own government. And according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, 69% of Americans think that public sector corruption is a problem or a serious problem, 64% of Americans think that government entirely or to a large extent run by special interests, 59% of Americans think that governmental anticorruption efforts are ineffective or very ineffective, 76% of Americans think that political parties are corrupt or extremely corrupt, and 61% of Americans think that Congress is corrupt or extremely corrupt. These numbers should make all Americans pause and realize that in addition to working to improve governance overseas, we must also work to fix our own corrupt political system. Hopefully the SDGs can help catalyze the popular and political will to improve governance and reduce corruption here in the U.S.

The universality of the SDGs is also extremely important because many of the Goal 16 targets deal with transnational phenomena such as illicit financial flows, stolen asset recovery and return, and bribery. Progress on these targets will require action in both developed and developing countries. Without action in the U.S. and in other major financial centers, there will be little hope of significantly reducing these scourges.

The adoption of the SDGs and in particular, Goal 16, is therefore an important development in the fight against corruption. However, the indicators that will be used to measure progress on the targets have yet to be selected. In order for progress on the SDGs to be measured reliably, the indicators chosen for the governance and anticorruption targets must be accurate, and their measurement must be free from government interference. Where it is impossible to directly measure the target, the indicators must instead measure proxies that are substantially related to the target. Without such accurate, independent, meaningful indicators, it will be impossible to track progress towards achieving the SDGs.

Recent events from the Arab Spring to the fall of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine to the demonstrations against corruption in Brazil have shown that people around the world are crying out for better governance and less corruption. Goal 16 of the SDGs ratifies this public desire for a less corrupt world. It helps prioritize the fight against corruption and calls on all countries to take action. Goal 16 should therefore be embraced as tool to push for action both here in the U.S. and around the world. Improving governance and fighting corruption is an enormous challenge; only coordinated international action will have a chance of success.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why We Should Be Excited About SDG 16

  1. I appreciate Daniel’s optimism regarding the potential impact of Goal 16, though I do not entirely share it. As an evaluation scholar (The Fletcher School) and practitioner in international development and specifically corruption, rule of law and peacebuilding programs, I too am happy that peace, conflict, justice and governance (and specifically corruption) are at least named in this rendition of global goals. However my sense is that experience shows that named is all we got and here are three reasons why:

    1. Goal 16 does not suggest any form of result. Promote is what people who want to create change do and not any representation of what must shift amongst those who are at the receiving end of this promotion. A number of the targets have similar problems.

    2. Target 16.5: substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms: to my knowledge does not include a definition of corruption. Recognizing this blogs dislike of the endless definition debates, from an evaluation perspective this matters as what do we measure? Does sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) get factored in the measure? In my world it would as those who commit SEA are generally abusing their positions of power for personal gain – think UN peacekeepers demanding sex for food.

    3. Due to the sheer number of goals and targets how much galvanizing power will this actually have? It is true that the MDGs were limited, but at least people could remember them without having to carry around a cheat sheet. My fear is with the breadth of issues included every donor government will be able to cherry pick the issues that matter to them. For instance, the Canadians will continue to champion maternal health and feel good that they are moving forward a SDG. Couple this with the inherent political nature of Goal 16 and the fact that many of the governments that we are demanding change from are culpable in the negative processes and it seems rather unlikely that much galvanizing of substance is going to occur.

    If we had wanted governance, justice, conflict etc to be given the emphasis that is needed then, in my opinion, the goals needed to be linked together to show their inter-connectivity and the measurement of progress reflected this interdependence. With this recognition of the systemic nature of all of these issues, one could not move forward on any singular issue without a recognition of other related needs. In this way it may have been possible to achieve what Daniel suggests – a real set of momentum on crucial issues.

  2. I think most of us who have worked for years on corruption programs around the world would generally agree with the Daniel’s arguments applauding SDG 16. It is about time and we should all take pride in seeing We have learned the hard way, through real world experience, that literally proving progress with hard data in this field is very difficult if not impossible. Most of us also have come to appreciate the fact that Transparency International’s rankings are very often not far off the mark, no matter what methodology employed. The real world reality is they are at this time one of the best, if not the best, measurements of progress in our evaluation arsenal. In any case, it is now up to us to work together to improve their accuracy, which we all know would be welcomed and helpful to all stakeholders. That goal, along with helping developing countries on the governance and corruption fronts, should be the order of the day.


    • I respectfully disagree. Although I do think that the CPI rankings are, as you say, “not far off the mark” when it comes to _cross-country_ comparisons (within a single year), I take issue with the assertion that within-country, year-to-year changes in the CPI are a useful “measurement of progress.” These two questions (whether the CPI is useful in making comparisons across countries, and whether the CPI is useful in assessing progress within countries) are NOT the same, though they often seem to be conflated.

      I don’t think anyone could really object to the argument that we should all work to improve the accuracy of existing indicators and to come up with better ones. Those are laudable goals. But to me it just seems odd to declare that we’d set the target first, and only get around to figuring out how to measure progress later.

  3. Thanks very much for the forceful rebuttal to Rick & my criticisms of SDG 16 (and in particular target 16.5). These are important issues, and I’m happy that we can ventilate some of them here on the blog.

    You’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that I don’t find your argument convincing, though I think we share a lot of the same values and beliefs, and I do agree with much of what you say.

    Here are some points where I think we agree: (1) good governance and anticorruption are very important for development, both because they are intrinsic goods and because they are instrumental for achieving other poverty reduction goals; (2) these issues are important not just in poor countries, but in rich countries as well (though presumably not to the same degree); (3) in order for the SDGs to have their intended effect, we need to have accurate, unbiased, quantitative measures for progress.

    I think our views diverge on two related issues:

    The first is whether we (or, more accurately, the UN) will be able to come up with appropriate measures for SDG 16, especially Target 16.5. My assertion in my original post on this (which you don’t directly contest, though perhaps you implicitly disagree) is that the answer is no. Year-to-year CPI changes, which seems to be the best that anyone has come up with so far, won’t cut it, for reasons I’ve already given and won’t rehash here. I’d love to hear alternative suggestions, and maybe the international community will come up with something, but I’m skeptical. I fear that in the end, partly due to the attitude reflected in Keith Henderson’s comment above (along the lines of, Well, the CPI isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got, and everyone already uses it), we’ll revert to telling countries they need to improve their CPI scores by such-and-such number of points. Which I think is a mistake, and Rick argues is in fact a terrible, counter-productive approach. As I said to Keith, I’m more than a bit befuddled by this idea that we first set the goal, and then afterwards come up with a way to measure it, rather than thinking about measurement in conjunction with setting the goal.

    The second point of (possible) divergence between our views concerns whether the SDGs are likely to have a (positive) impact even if we never do come up with a good, reliable way to measure progress. Your view seems to be yes: You predict that the inclusion of good governance and anticorruption in the SDGs means that we’ll see substantially more resources devoted to these objectives. I hope you’re right — and if you are, I’d absolutely jump on the SDG 16 bandwagon, even if the measures remained lousy. But I confess I just don’t understand why people think that the UN announcing, with fanfare, that anticorruption is important to development will have much of any effect on anticorruption efforts (at least in the absence of measurable, realistic targets). The UN has _already_ endorsed this view (for example, in UNCAC). Lots of other international organizations have endorsed this view. It’s on the agenda. It’s a priority. Why is one more announcement that corruption is important to development likely to make any meaningful difference? I’m still not clear on this.

    I do understand that getting anticorruption included in the SDGs makes anticorruption activists feel like they’ve accomplished something. It seems like a kind of formal validation or endorsement of their views and objectives (views and objectives that, for the most part, I also share). But what, exactly, does this accomplish? Again, if the SDGs are just about announcing “This is important!”, I feel like they’re redundant, as we’ve got plenty of that already. If they’re about creating specific targets, so that individual countries and the international community can monitor progress and hold policymakers accountable, then the SDGs do indeed do something new… but without a reliable progress measure, I fear they will do it badly and perhaps, as Rick warns, cause more problems than they solve.

  4. I think Daniel’s blog just attests to the important conclusion that SDG 16 and in particular 16.5 adds nothing significant to the anti-corruption debate and even fight against corruption. The fact that corruption is now recognised or named as an important issue for development and governance is to my mind what has been going on for decades. It is no more than the usual acceptance that corruption is a problem that should be tackled. The argument of increased funding to the anti-corruption agenda is something worth considering. The question is will it be good for the cause or capable of causing more damage? We have already seen how even anti-corruption crusaders have increasingly become unaccountable and non-transparent. I think all we got from SDG 16.5 was the usual international recognition and on anti-corruption which has been done in numerous documents.

  5. Pingback: Development Channel » This Week in Markets and Democracy: Sustainable Development Goals Adopted

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