To the extent that people know anything about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they reasonably assume that they have something to do with the economy (development), and with the environment (sustainability). They’re only partly right. The bigger challenge, especially for countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, is governance.
The 17 SDGs were adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015, with a target date of 2030. That leaves 10 years to achieve, amongst others: no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, affordable and clean energy and climate action. These are major challenges for all governments, not just MENA.
Yet the most challenging of the goals may be the one that hardly gets talked about: SDG 16. It calls for governments to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
All the SDGs are accompanied by specific targets. The ones for SDG 16 include: promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all; substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms; develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels; ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels; and ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.
This is a familiar list of ingredients of “good governance” as it has been defined by major international agencies like the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development over the last 20 years. But they are more than a list: They are mutually reinforcing. It’s hard to achieve one without the others.
Take eradicating bribery and corruption. How could that be achieved if the courts are in the back pockets of political and business leaders? Corruption cannot be truly addressed without the rule of law. But real rule of law needs accountability and transparency, which means public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms.
It gets more complicated. The target of “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels” is a target less about governments than about civil society and non-governmental institutions. SDG 16 is not just about the institutions of government — it is about the relationship of government to society as well.
It gets more complicated still. In addition to accountability, transparency and participation, SDG 16 also has a target of “effective” institutions at all levels. It is not clear what that means in the context of SDG 16, but it must have something to do with the results and targets for the other SDGs. For example, SDG 4, on quality education and its target of (to take just one) “equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university,” would require both massive investments and well-designed institutions.
Achieving most of the other SDGs will also depend on effective government institutions. For example, decent work and economic growth (SDG 8); innovation, industry and infrastructure (SDG 9); and climate action (SDG 13).
The SDGs, in short, are goals that can only be achieved through good and effective governance. SDG 16 makes that explicit, but it is embedded in most the other SDGs and their targets. This challenge of good governance is not just about warm and fuzzy slogans; it is about institutional design, about government capacity and about government-society relations.
What progress has been made, and what are the pathways to success by 2030? For the MENA region, given the variety of situations and the intensity of conflict in many countries, the results are mixed. The “Sustainable Development Report 2019,” published by the UN-affiliated Sustainable Development Solutions Network, notes that “Conflicts in some countries lead to poor and declining performance on most of the SDGs and in particular on SDG 2 (No Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions).”
While access to clean water, sanitation and clean energy is generally high, the report calls for more efforts to deal with high levels of perceived corruption. It is cold comfort that Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa fare even worse on most SGDs in general, and SDG 16 especially.
The path forward on governance, for all countries and not just MENA, is not to try to do everything all at once. The year 2030 is only a decade away. If we think of the SDGs as 17 rail cars, what are the engines that will pull them into the station on time?
First, education. The results of a good educational system are educated citizens, who will in turn contribute to economic growth and to civil society development. Second, anti-corruption and rule of law. The lessons of recent uprisings and protests around the world are clear: Nothing ignites public outrage more than the injustice that comes with the rot of corruption. Third, build capacity in public institutions through training and high standards of competence and merit. The 2030 Agenda is only a decade away. Achieving SDG 16 is the key to success. We need to start now.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.