Is adoption of governance as a SDG an empty gesture?

as posted on the world bank’s governance blog on october 21, 2015

The adoption of governance focused SDG #16 and its targets is being claimed a great victory for proponents of good governance.

All UN member states approved the goal to “build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” and committed to develop action plans to achieve targets that “substantially reduce corruption”, practice “responsive, inclusive and participatory decision making”, and “ensure public access to information.”

On the surface this appears to be a major paradigm shift from the MDGs.

A closer examination suggests that these intentions have a caveat that may weaken the supposed shift in the political economy of governance for development. All of these commitments are subject to national legislations that vary broadly in scope in terms of access to information, public participation and strength of anti-corruption policies and institutions. Moreover, governments involved differ on what key concepts such as rule of law, fundamental freedoms, accountable and institutions mean.

SDG #16 targets have been has been criticized for being too broad and advancing objectives that are not readily measurable. Indicators to monitor progress are yet to be agreed.

So is adoption of governance targets in SDGs an empty gesture?

Experience suggests not. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral good governance initiative, has 66 countries as members and another 28 countries eligible but not yet members. These countries representing about half of all UN member states meet OGP eligibility requirements comprising the following dimensions of good governance policies: access to information; citizen engagement; public officials assets disclosure and fiscal transparency.

Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) features 46 countries that have explicitly agreed to allow civil society organizations to monitor government development policies and programs.

Put simply, the growth and coverage of OGP and GPSA are evidence that in the last decade since the launch of MDGs at least half of the SDG signatories have recognized that sustainable development is more likely to be achieved when governments are transparent and held accountable for using their resources effectively and honestly.

More and more are also realizing that engaging with citizens is good government strategy. OGP and GPSA member countries have demonstrated that many of the reforms included in SDG #16 are practical, measureable and readily achievable. This isn’t to say they’re easy. However, many lessons have been learned through OGP and GPSA experiences that could inform SDG#16 implementation. We certainly don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

In its goal to support developing country CSOs fighting for good governance, the Partnership for Transparency Fund (PTF) has recognized the enormous opportunity that SDG #16 presents for each of our partners. In response, we set out to identify how OGP experience could inform the SDGs and how we could use this experience to better engage CSOs in government transparency and accountability programs. We found promising potential for countries to gain substantive insight for SDG #16 action planning and advocacy. We understand that a similar exercise is being done by GPSA and will be featured at the OGP Global Summit in Mexico in October 2015.

Our research mapped a database of nearly 1,000 OGP target into the ten SDG #16 target areas. The exercise suggests that OGP experiences can inform the substance of half of the SDG target areas. Common elements include transparency, accountability, responsiveness, and inclusive participation in the functioning of governments. Additional elements of SDG #16 mainly concern peace, crime and access to justice and can be associated with the OGP declaration statement. OGP also has well developed processes for participatory national action planning, cross-country commitment databases, and monitoring and evaluation (i.e. self-assessment and independent reporting mechanisms).

We conclude from our research that SDG#16 is not an empty promise and a paradigm shift is indeed underway. A good foundation exits in at least half of the 193 UN member countries for advancing the SDG # 16 targets for reducing corruption, improving access to information, building inclusive and participatory institutions, citizen engagement and promoting rule of law. This provides substantial entry points for accomplishing SDG #16 targets.

Developing institutions and practices for SDG #16 will take significant time and resources, especially for civil society. OGP and GPSA activities have produced a substantial body of knowledge and learning materials and can serve as rich resources for all UN member countries to draw on to design, implement and monitor action plans for SDG #16. By using the OGP processes as a starting point, SDG member countries could reap significant savings of time and resources, both human and financial.

If you’re planning to be at the OGP Global Summit in Mexico City, we invite you join us at 2:00 pm on Oct 29th for The Future of OGP: How to Promote Effective Cooperation with SDG #16 where we’ll review lessons learned and explore the way forward.