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.