— Copenhagen Consensus (@Copenhagen_CC) December 6, 2014
No one disputes the ambitiousness of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals. Both in scope and in process, these goals are a marked departure from the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them. One of the more promising additions to the SDG agenda is a goal on governance. Simply put, we’ve realized that it will be difficult to achieve make any real economic and social progress without building states that are both stronger and more accountable. We know that civil wars are economic development in reverse, and we’ve seen in recent years that governments that are not accountable increasingly court the risk of upheaval and removal. In both situations, meeting goals on public health and education will take a back seat to more pressing matters. Thus, starting with the High Level Panel in 2013, addressing the internal governance of states became an essential ingredient in strengthening development globally.
While ambition is laudable, ambition without results is not. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the success or failure of SDG 16 will turn on whether we can turn this goal into measurable indicators and then use them in a peer review setting to improve results. But here lies the problem: while we can agree upon measures of infant mortality or government spending, measures of governance are more of a challenge. What is worrisome is that there is not enough consensus on measures, which in turn raises the issue of whether the goal itself will survive the negotiation process. The debate about governance indicators, then, is one in which the stakes are high.
Two recent reviews of this literature offer different views on the matter. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network released its comprehensive paper: Indicators and a Monitoring Framework for Sustainable Development Goals. There is a lot about the SDSN paper to like. The discussion of the need for a monitoring framework is certainly timely, since we will certainly need one. But the discussion of indicators for Goal 16, especially for governance, is wanting. The discussion of 16.6 (the goal noted above) is about two potential indicators: the existence and implementation of a national law and/or a constitutional guarantee on the right to information, and an indicator on compliance with the OECD’s or other Anti-Bribery Convention. For the first of these, there is an important distinction between de facto and de jure: laws about right to information might not guarantee access to information. For the second of these, this indicator still needs to be developed. So while we all might agree that governance matters, we need better ways to measure it.
The Copenhagen Consensus Center also just released its review of the proposed targets on governance and institutions from the SDG Open Working Group proposal. (I was asked to contribute a viewpoint paper as part of this assessment. While the overall assessment of the cost-benefit value of a governance goal is low, the broader point remains that even if this is the case, the goal right now has a particular momentum behind it. Given this, the task for the policy community is to make the goal work. And to do this requires appropriate targets. While there is much in the review paper on this that is sound, I did find it rather lacking in the discussion of appropriate targets. There are many appraisals of data in this field out there, and some integration would go a long way to moving the debate forward. Some of these sources have been referenced in the review paper, but others do exist.
At the same time, there is plenty of political science research that has not yet found its way into this debate. For example, numerous measures of regime type exist outside of the traditional Freedom House and Polity scores (See here, here, and here). And there are also novel measures of transparency based on the extent of missing data in the World Development Indicators. There are also important critiques of existing measures that need to inform this debate (see here for a discussion of corruption and here for a discussion of the WGI project).
The stakes here, are higher than mere pleading that political science research needs to be a part of this broader conversation. In the absence of strong proposals that advocate some measures more than others, there are two possibilities. First, we might find that the governance target focuses on available data rather than appropriate data. The existence of laws is not the same as the enforcement of those laws, and it would be less than ideal to lobby for the first of these to the detriment of the second. More importantly, without a strong consensus on how governance ought to be measured, this leaves the initiative to the states themselves, which could result in a watered-down agreement. If we want to include effective, accountable, and transparent institutions as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to have more in-depth conversations on how we’ll measure these concepts.