MDG millenium development goals governance

Better governance is increasingly recognised as a key driver of development. So much so that a number of organisations and states are lobbying for a 'stand-alone' governance goal to be included in the next global development framework after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015.

To support the call for such a stand-alone goal, a fierce debate is under way, including at the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals meeting in New York this week,  about how governance can possibly be measured.

I have concluded that focusing all efforts on a 'stand-alone' goal risks missing the point. All eggs are being placed in one basket rather than in a wider strategy to put governance on the global agenda for the next 15 years. Here are three reasons why  governance is not a stand-alone issue:

1. Much of the debate on a governance goal focuses on how to measure it rather than on whether it will make any real difference. 

Many organisations have come forward with ever-expanding lists of desirable measures of governance, from the rule of law to transparency, from corruption to political participation. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) recently reviewed and assessed these proposals, concluding that a more selective and structured approach is needed, focusing areas where measurement, monitoring and specified targets are most likely to make a difference and which are most likely to benefit from an MDG-style approach.

ODI suggests a focus on underlying governance 'functions' rather than particular 'forms', and that greater attention needs to be paid to neglected areas such as state capacity and effectiveness. This would help support substantive reform rather than reinforcing incentives to 'signal' change or only make superficial change.

Also, more attention needs to be paid to the capacity of national statistical offices to collect and analyse data, as well as on the reliability and quality of existing data sources on governance issues at the national as well as global level.

2. Governance needs to be on the agenda in other sectors too, not just as a stand-alone issue.  

For governance to be taken seriously across the post-2015 framework it requires much more engagement with sectoral discussions, for example around gender equality, water and natural resources, as well as health and education.

This might include things like the transparent allocation of financial resources to sanitation and water services; the effective monitoring of rules and regulations of extractive industries; the formal registration of land tenure/rights; or measuring horizontal inequalities (by gender, ethnicity or region) in achieving health and education outcomes. Few in governance circles are paying attention to debates going on in other sectors, however. 

3. The debate on national-level transparency and accountability misses broader issues of global governance.

While transparency and accountability at the national level clearly matters, they are not the only priority.  Global governance is noticeably absent from the current agenda.

Much has been said about the weakness of the MDG framework on mutual commitments between rich and poor countries, including the notorious MDG 8, called 'a global partnership for development' but which had no real teeth or meaningful indicators and targets.

Yet there does not seem to be much appetite for a genuine global and mutual commitment agenda on governance beyond 2015: not much has been said about the rules underpinning illicit financial flows between countries, migration, arms and drugs trades or the effects of extractive industries in poor countries, for example. For many developing countries, these are key governance issues and real obstacles to development. 

Politically, such a global approach could also make a key difference in winning support for a governance agenda beyond OECD countries and in the global south.

I hope the OWG does not just provide recommendations or options for a 'governance goal', but rather that it seizes the opportunity to set out a much more ambitious  (and politically savvy) strategy for putting governance at the heart of a future global strategy. This would require getting a much wider group of people on board, in the north as well as south, and looking beyond the usual governance approaches and measures.  Action on governance will require participation at all levels, engaging more than the usual suspects of governance organisations, experts and campaigners (me included!).

Photo by Flickr user World Bank Photo Collection.