There’s No Sustainable Development Without Good Governance

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire this year, attention is turning to a new priority – Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which are being negotiated now and are scheduled to be adopted in late September.

As the world contemplates this new agenda, good governance needs to be a priority.

Sustainable development is often described as consisting of three pillars – social, environmental and economic – but this model lacks a key ingredient for sustainability: good governance. It has been widely recognized that the MDGs did not place enough focus on governance. They did not have a goal on governance, and the only goal that came close, MDG eight, made a vague pronouncement about creating a “global partnership for development.”

The SDGs will be far from sustainable without governments capable of implementing them. In fact, good governance – institutions that are responsive to the needs of citizens – is the foundation of sustainable development. Without a strong foundation the pillars of sustainable development will crumble.

Conflict or public health disasters can quickly erode development gains in the absence of good governance. As Foreign Policy noted in August, the Ebola epidemic is more than just a problem of health care, it’s a crisis of governance. And while international humanitarian relief efforts are necessary, there will be no long-term development without strong local institutions.

The SDGs have begun to take shape. An Open Working Group outcome document proposed 17 new goals in July, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon endorsed in a Synthesis Report in December. Both reports contain strong language highlighting the importance of good governance.

The Open Working Group document states: “Good governance and the rule of law at the national and international levels are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger.”

Moon’s Synthesis Report echoes the Open Working Group, stating that the member states will have to “fill key sustainable development gaps left by the MDGs,” including “strengthening effective, accountable, participatory and inclusive governance.”

But these statement may prove to be mere lip service against the backdrop of what Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, describes as the “weakened commitment by the United States and other established democracies to making democracy support a foreign-policy priority.”

The international community must prioritize good governance as the foundation of the pillars of sustainable development. Goals 16 and 17 of the Open Working Group’s outcome document are a promising move in that direction, but governance is still at risk of being sidelined. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network has proposed a set of indicators to go along with the goals, but the indicators for governance could be strengthened.

As UN negotiators meet this year to finalize the SDGs, they should keep in mind three considerations to ensure that good governance is implemented as a core component of the goals:

  1. Make governance a cross-cutting consideration for all goals
  2. Employ a country-led approach to sustainable development
  3. Help support strong democratic institutions through international assistance
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Gross National Happiness or Have You Seen a Cow?

Today was the first day of the first week of orientation for my master’s program (MPA-DP) at Columbia. The day concluded with an interesting lecture (the first Development Practitioner Seminar) from Dr. Saamdu Chetri, the director of Bhutan’s Happiness Center. His lecture was on Gross National Happiness (GNH). Every two years the country of Bhutan conducts a survey to determine the level of “happiness” in the country. The idea is based on the fact that GDP is an inadequate indicator to judge the wellbeing of a society. In fact, the traditional concept of “growth,” Dr. Chetri explained, may be incompatible with long-term economic sustainability.

At the end of the lecture, we were given the opportunity to ask questions. My question: Since the index is based mostly on answers to subjective questions in an interview setting, how do you ensure that social pressure to be happy (or at least say you’re happy) doesn’t artificially inflate the level of “measured” happiness. That’s not how I phrased it (I wish I’d phrased it better), but that was the basic idea.

Dr. Chetri’s response was that the questions are designed in a way to make it very difficult to intentionally sabotage the results. Instead of just asking if you’re happy, the interviewer would ask a variety of questions on numerous subjects from which they could infer the person’s level of happiness. For instance, the interviewer would ask something like: “Do you know what a cow looks like?” The assumption being that if you don’t know what a cow looks like you are less connected to nature and therefore less happy.

The GNH is based on four pillars of happiness, which are good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. Economic development is important to achieving happiness and equity in society, but it should not come at the cost of the other three pillars. For example, while cleaning up an oil spill may create jobs and contribute to GDP, it has a negative impact on overall happiness because oil spills are devastating to the environment.

Central to GNH is the idea of sustainability, which will also be a key component of the Sustainable Development Goals (the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, which will sunset in 2015).

P.S. I went on an evening ride in Central Park today. Going fast is scary with so many people around.