Governments and other parties involved in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals missed an important opportunity to provide more impetus to the goals’ success at the recent opening session of the General Assembly, held in September.
By engaging largely in self-congratulation, with few exceptions, the three-minute speeches by world leaders at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals conference ignored, for example, specific commitments that could propel the good governance agenda, under Goal 16 and beyond.
That goal, on peace, justice and strong institutions, lies at the center of the SDGs, with good governance at its core. At the high-level political forum last month, the president of the Seychelles, Danny Faure, was a lone voice in reinforcing governance links across the goals, saying that “governance is the key means of implementation” of the SDGs.
In his 2019 report on the goals, Secretary-General António Guterres wrote about homicides, human trafficking, birth registration and human-rights institutions under Goal 16. But his report was remarkably silent on other key governance measures such as bribery, transparent institutions, participatory and representative decision-making and public access to information.
A new report by the nonprofit group Partnership for Transparency, titled “Expanding Civil Society Contributions to the Governance Agendas of Sustainable Development Goals and International Financial Institutions,” looked at the recent experience of donors, governments and other entities with good governance programs. It found that these goals in Agenda 2030 are only “aspirational,” with “slim prospects” for their success.
A major reason for such shortfalls, the report says, is limited civic engagement — a point that received little attention at the SDG conference last month.
Good governance programs have tended to focus on the “supply” of governance-related services, such as state institutions’ monitoring performance on public financial management. They often give inadequate attention to the “demand” for governance services by beneficiaries. These “demand” activities include, for example, monitoring of public budgets for schools by parent-teacher associations and civic groups’ exercising their right to information on public services.
The report calls for a major increase on the “demand” side in civil society engagement in Goal 16 programs.
The report reviewed more than 40 studies on hundreds of cases of civil society engagement in good governance programs. It found that they work best in contributing to initiatives that address the rights of citizens to obtain information on public activities; track public expenditures and promote participatory budgeting; conduct third-party monitoring of state actions; raise awareness of people’s rights and entitlements; and encourage citizens to express their voice during public consultations on government-sponsored plans.
The report also concluded that expanding transparency, accountability and full access to public services and improving ways to redress grievances are important for a program’s usefulness.
But the report also found that context matters greatly. What works in one setting may not work in another without adaptation.
Research suggests that the strongest evidence of positive results from civil society engagement in good governance programs lies in the delivery of public services, such as health and education, as well as in public financial management. Even then, positive results are far from assured: token participation, reprisals and/or denial of services, capture by elites, community disenchantment and even violent responses by governments are not excluded.
Interventions or other actions that help to build a conducive environment and state responsiveness to civic action are generally more successful than those promoting only citizens’ voices.
The positive global environment for good governance established by the SDGs does not mean that a favorable environment exists in every country. This problem was evident in the lack of specificity on governance and civil society roles in the national speeches heard at the UN political forum assessing the goals in September as well as in July.
Guterres wrote frankly about the problem in his SDG progress report: “Attacks on civil society are . . . holding back development progress.”
The weak if not debilitating environment for progress on the good governance agenda nationally is also apparent in a 2018 study by the Institute of Development Studies.
Its findings: “In principle, new regulations purport to strengthen the governance and accountability of civil society, and to assert national sovereignty over the development process. In practice, however, efforts to regulate civic space are often a heavy-handed mixture of stigmatisation and delegitimisation, selective application of rules and restrictions, and violence and impunity for violence against civic actors and groups, motivated by the concentration or consolidation of political power.”
While the September conference and the high-level debate of world leaders at the General Assembly last month represent missed opportunities, the nongovernmental community can and should continue to pursue the matter nationally and especially locally. Civil society organizations can use the SDGs to hold public authorities accountable for being responsive to such organizations that are working on governance.
In this way, it is noteworthy that the president of the UN Economic and Social Council’s summary of the July forum said, “Strengthening the role of non-state actors is vital to the achievement of the Goals.”
The best programs on good governance will find civil society groups to be the real partners, acting collaboratively rather than confrontationally to pursue common objectives.
A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.