Brief Reflections on Sustainable Development Goals Progress and Governance

Maria Dahlman Ström • Jun 12th, 2014
Brief Reflections on Sustainable Development Goals Progress and Governance

On 2 June 2014, two important documents in the process of developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were released: the Zero Draft of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development (OWG) entitled ‘Introduction and Proposed Goals and Targets on Sustainable Development for the Post2015 Development Agenda’ and the European Commission’s Position Paper on the SDGs, titled ‘A decent Life for all: from vision to collective action’.

Shortly before these official documents, UNU-IAS, POST2015 and the Earth System Governance Project released a conference report and three policy briefs regarding governance in the SDGs with the aim of informing the OWG on key questions relating to the architecture and implementation of the SDGs. This short text briefly reflects on how ‘governance’ is addressed in the Zero Draft, the EC’s Position Paper as well as on how their standpoints compare to the findings and recommendations made in the UNU-IAS/POST2015/Earth System Governance policy briefs.

Starting with the European Commission’s ‘A decent Life for all: from vision to collective action’, a quick search-through of the document shows that the term ‘governance’ is mentioned ten times throughout this fourteen pages long text. It is also part of one of the seventeen proposed potential targets and priority areas, the one called ‘Human rights, the rule of law, good governance and effective institutions’.

This echoes Policy Brief #3 which states that if governance is addressed as a stand-alone SDG, then this would offer the best opportunity to comprehensively incorporate all three aspects of governance into a post-2015 development agenda. However, it is also stated that this approach, because of existing indicators of governance and actor coalitions organized around specific issues, risks that good governance might be privileged over effective governance or equitable governance. Considering the fact that six out of ten mentions of governance in the EC document refer to the quality of governance (good or bad), it seems that the EC’s position is prone to this imbalance between elements of governance. The other four mentions of governance refer to governance in general, leaving none to specifically address neither equitable nor effective governance.

However, in the proposed goal on good governance the EC also incorporate effective institutions, and in the description of this goal they state that “a rights based-approach, encompassing all human rights, will decisively contribute to the improvement of the quality of governance, to reducing inequality and exclusion and realizing the envisaged targets and actions of this agenda through participation, transparency and accountability”. This means that they in one way or another cover all three aspects of governance although, in line with the identified risk in the policy brief, good governance receives far more direct focus.

Moving on to the Zero Draft by the Open Working Group where the term ‘governance’ is only mentioned two times throughout this twenty-one pages long document. Both of these mentions are in the preamble. The UNU-IAS/POST2015/Earth System Governance Conference Report states that many of the attending scholars and practitioners were sceptical of including governance as an enabler, for example as a preamble, since it is unlikely that this approach will have any significant impact.

Suggested goal 16, “Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions”, is the one that comes closest to dealing with governance. However, this goal is divided into two parts: ‘Fostering peaceful and inclusive societies’ and ‘Rule of law, effective and capable institutions’. The first part rather defines desired governance outcomes instead of addressing governance.

The second part of the goal incorporates quality, equity and effectiveness aspects, as Policy Brief #3 recommends, but it only deals with institutions. These are certainly an important part of the governance which can be defined as “the sum of many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs” (The Commission on Global Governance 1995). But institutions clearly are not the only part; governance refers to all types of steering, which are often decentralized, open to self-regulation and less hierarchical than traditional governmental policy-making, as well as many types of actors, including a diverse range of non-state ones (Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan).

It is noteworthy that the OWG did not use the term governance, which is a key term in international politics, in the goal that deals with such similar aspects - especially since this could have ensured a more comprehensive approach to governance. This is interesting but not surprising as the concept of governance is understood very differently by different member states and, as acknowledged in the Conference Report, governance is a problematic and sensitive term in UN politics. In the end, it’s all about politics.


The author is a research intern at the Earth System Governance International Project Office.


Tags: adaptive governance and means of implementation,Earth System Governance Project,European Union,frameworks and conceptualizations,global governance,good governance,Governance as Goal,governance definitions / concepts,governance for sustainable societies,Open Working Group (OWG) Process,Post-2015 intergovernmental process,POST2015 Project on Sustainability Transformation beyond 2015,United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG),United Nations University (UNU)