5 Things You Should Know About Governance as a Proposed Sustainable Development Goal

Published on The World Bank’s “People, Spaces, Deliberation” Blog

By Vinay Bhargava, Chief Technical Adviser, Partnership for Transparency Fund

On May 27 I had the pleasure of serving as a panelist at an event organized by the Governance Thematic Group of 1818 Society of the World Bank Group (WBG) Alumni. The panel discussed the proposed Sustainable Development Goal Number 16 on Governance and the implications for the World Bank Group, UNDP and member countries.

The panelists were: Mr. Homi Kharas, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution; Ms. Heike Gramckow, Lead Counsel and Acting Practice Manager, Governance Inclusive Institutions/ Justice Reform at the Governance Global Practice, at the World Bank Group; Mr. Brian Levy, Professor of the Practice, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University; Mr. Jerome Sauvage, Deputy head of UNDP Office in Washington DC. Mr. Fredrick Temple, currently Adviser at the Partnership for Transparency Fund moderated the workshop.

It was a lively discussion for over two hours. Several former World Bank staff who are currently serving in positions of importance and influence in many parts of the World participated in the workshop.

The panel presentations and discussion were hugely informative and insightful. I am pleased to share with you my five takeaways that anyone interested in governance and development interactions ought to know.

    1. The proposed SDG covers multiple dimensions of governance and is controversial. The SDG is described as follows: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. The ten proposed targets illustrate the multiple dimensions of governance included in the proposed SDG #16:16.1 significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere
      16.2 end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children
      16.3 promote the rule of law at the national and international levels, and ensure equal access to justice for all
      16.4 by 2030 significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen recovery and return of stolen assets, and combat all forms of organized crime
      16.5 substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms\
      16.6 develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels
      16.7 ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels
      16.8 broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance
      16.9 by 2030 provide legal identity for all including birth registration
      16.10 ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements: (a) a strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, for building capacities at all levels, in particular in developing countries, for preventing violence and combating terrorism and crime; (b) promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development.The SDG is controversial as the governments involved differ on key concepts such as rule of law, fundamental freedoms, accountability and inclusiveness of institutions etc.
    2. The Governance SDG is the outcome of a political process and compromises that are likely to sustain its adoption in September 2015. Several key but diverse advocacy groups have lobbied hard to propose the governance SDG and succeeded in having it included this time, in contrast with MDGs that did not include it. These include advocates for: human rights; national and international anti-corruption measures; transparency and open government; civil society and citizen voice and engagement; rule of law and access to justice for all; anti-trafficking; and anti-money laundering. There was considerable debate whether to have an SDG governance goal, as some governments consider it to be a sovereign issue not suitable for international action. In the end the Open Working Group process used to develop the SDGs and the targets reconciled the opposing views. In this process all voices were heard and the decision-making was inclusive. The Group process generated sufficient political will and compromises for inclusion of SDG 16 in the proposal to be considered by the UN General Assembly. The downside was the complexity and aspirational nature of the SDG. The panelists agreed that inclusion of governance in SDGs is a good outcome. Seventeen SDGs including SDG 16 are likely to be adopted in September by the UN General Assembly without significant change.


    1. Most of the ten targets proposed to monitor progress of SDG #16 are not readily measurable, and only two are time bound. Still they are significant and will serve an important purpose. Panelists viewed SDG 16’s scope as very broad: this would give rise to ambiguities and difficulties to establish meaningful measure across countries. It will be difficult to implement effective policies and initiatives that can be linked to meaningful measures. However, it was noted that work on all target areas in Goal 16 is already being done in several countries around the world, and cross-country indicators for many of the governance dimensions included among the targets already exist. In this sense the SDG will legitimize what is already being done. Nevertheless it is clear that much work will need to be done at country level to specify meaningful, measurable and actionable targets to establish baseline as well as monitoring indicators. A key challenge will be how to avoid ‘isomorphic mimicry’, i.e. a situation in which improving rankings on indicators becomes the driver of country actions instead of a focus on outcomes/results. Panelists agreed the goal and targets will serve the important purpose of reinforcing the advocacy effort and push national action plans to include key measures to improve governance. They will also serve the important function of monitoring implementation and multi-stakeholder dialogue around it.


    1. The WBG member countries will need considerable international technical and financial assistance to design and implement action plans. However, this topic is not receiving attention at the upcoming international conference on development financing of SDGs. Actions to fulfill the SDG 16 targets will cut across government, civil society, private sector and donors. Governance reforms will need to focus on national as well as sub-national levels and on a variety of institutions. In particular, efforts will be needed to strengthen public and civil society institutions. Investments will be needed in public institutional capacities to make them open and responsive to stakeholders on policy design, implementation and monitoring. All stakeholders will require resources. However, meaningful proposals in this regard are missing so far from the proposals being table for discussion at Addis Ababa in July 2015. UNDP and multi-lateral development banks are currently primary sources of assistance in governance areas; the bilateral donors seem to be cutting back their support for governance reforms. The funding for civil society organizations is particularly at risk. The panel urged enhanced advocacy efforts in this area.


  1. The implications of SDG 16 for the World Bank Group are significant and will require a stepping up of efforts to help member nations. Several of the governance targets focus on criminal acts, and some of them will be out of the WBG scope of activities e.g. targets on reducing arms flows and organized crime. However, for most of the targets the WBG will be able to help member states with financial and technical resources. WBG analytical and advisory services could help countries analyze the gaps in their current efforts and what more they can do to specify and reach their targets in governance areas. The issues covered by the targets are complex and will require complex responses. WBG could help develop such responses and provide the resources needed to implement and monitor the reforms. The WBG could also play a key role in building inclusive institutions through all of its Global Practices. WBG already has institutional and financial assistance arrangement in place to help governments (IBRD/IDA), the private sector (IFC) and civil society (GPSA). All three will need to be mobilized to help countries design and implement SDGs including the governance SDG. The Global Monitoring Report that has served important roles in monitoring the MDGs will need to be continued and adapted to cover the SDGs.

My final observation is about the complicated relationship between quality of governance and sustainable development. Obviously proponents of SDG 16 believe good governance is needed for sustainable development. However, not all agree and point to rapid growth periods in some countries (e.g. South Korea, USA, Singapore, Bangladesh, China) that were accompanied by conditions that theses days are associated with poor governance. The upcoming 2017 World Development Report (WDR) will devoted to the topic of Governance and the Law and promises to examine the “complicated interaction between economic development and the quality of governance”. Stay tuned for much more on this topic as the SDGs get adopted and the WDR 2017 discussions and report progress in the coming months.