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Why a Governance SDG is Essential

Last week Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund For Peace released their annual Fragile States Index. This could not have come at a better time. With the discussions regarding the Sustainable Development Goals still in flux as the zero draft of the SDGs is revised, the findings from the Fragile States Index make plainly clear that a while economic benchmarks are important, we will not solve the development problem without greater attention to governance. Goal 16, which calls for creating (among other things) “inclusive societies and effective and capable institutions” is an integral part of human betterment. We cannot have more sustainable growth globally without more capable states.

The actual rankings have already been covered elsewhere (see here here and here) and the methodology of the study is discussed here. The overall index is comprised of twelve indicators and many sub-indicators. I’ll focus on the three that are most related to governance: state legitimacy (corruption and political participation), public services (how well does the government provide public goods), and human rights (how free are the people in the country). Ascertaining whether these three measures “go together” tell us about what governance looks like in the world. There are three key findings from this report that underscore the need for a governance SDG:

  • Legitimate states are more capable states

Each of these indicators is coded on a ten-point scale, with higher scores indicating bigger problems. The data suggest that those states that have greater deficiencies in legitimacy are those that are less able to provide public services. The bivariate correlation between these two measures is .765, which is highly statistically significant. The average score on public services for the 18 countries with legitimacy scores of 9 or higher was 8.31.

  • Freer states are more capable states

The bivariate correlation between these two measures is .736, which is highly statistically significant. Those states with better human rights records are more able to provide public goods to their citizens. The average score on public services for the 16 countries with human rights scores of 9 or higher was 7.88.

  • Capable states are less fragile ones

The seven most fragile states according to this index (South Sudan, Somalia, CAR, DRC, Sudan, Chad, and Afghanistan) all have scores on public services of 9.0 or higher. Certainly exceptions exist here, but we can’t make these states less fragile (and thereby improve their development prospects) without strengthening them so that they provide public goods more effectively.

In short, we can certainly disagree on how to best frame this goal. As it is written it does not say “democratic governance” or “rule of law.”  This ruffles some feathers and certainly smooths others. The evidence is clear, though, that we cannot address those pockets of countries that lag on existing Millennium Development Goals without more attention to state capacity in the future SDGs.

Martin S. Edwards

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