SDG+1: Holding Governments to Account — A New Role for the SDGs

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  • 2016•09•23

    Tamara Kool

    Holding Governments Accountable

    UN Photo/Evan Schneider

    We are fast approaching the first anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” — adopted 25 September 2015. This ambitious new agenda builds on a rich history of global social development efforts, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the 1995 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development.

    The scope is all-encompassing, but to what extent can impact be assigned to the SDGs themselves? This is a difficult but important question. For the earlier MDGs, Friedman found little or no “acceleration” following their acceptance, except for total debt servicing (MDG 8b). In other words, adoption made little difference to the pace of fulfilment. This was confirmed by researchers at the UNU Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT), who found that clear improvements in social realities took place even prior to the adoption of the MDGs.

    If impact is so difficult to attribute to the MDGs, how should we monitor the progress of the SDGs? In March 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted 230 indicators to cover the 17 SDGs and their accompanying 169 targets. But given the limitations of and discussion surrounding impact attribution, should we want such a monitoring mechanism? Will it add any value?

    Above all, the SDGs are a tool — a tool to hold governments to account. By adopting the SDGs our leaders pledged to improve the situation of their people and planet. If we further extend this to the local and regional policy context, the SDGs have the potential to be a tool for civil society and other major stakeholders to hold governments to account for their actions.

    Goals linked to social development represent another core area, particularly the SDGs for education, health, and poverty. These very much rely on adequate budget allocation, shown by a close link between MDG fulfilment and social expenditure. So here governments have an important choice to make: to rethink how budgets are earmarked, to increase efficiency, or to top up allocated budgets (by increasing tax revenues, for example).

    To see how far governments are allocating budgets for education, health, and poverty, UNU-MERIT developed a new tool. This tool estimates the financial requirements and feasibility of a given country to achieve a given SDG. It builds on other indices, including the Social Protection Floor Index, which identified ‘protection gaps’ according to income and health. We expanded this by incorporating the various SDG targets related to social development, and then developed a way to estimate governments’ fiscal capacity for achieving the targets.

    A tool for transparency & accountability

    Our new tool uses data from the publicly available World Bank Development Indicators Database. As such, it gives civil society organisations a way to assess governments’ achievement of the SDGs, in particular social development dimensions (or indeed a way of telling governments to change track). In the run-up to the anniversary, the UNU-MERIT SDG+1 blog series will go into further detail on each aspect of the monitoring system, looking above all at goals related to social development. Each blog will also focus on countries from the Global South, representing both low- and low-middle-income countries from each region.

    Firstly, Patima Chongcharoentanawat will take a closer look at poverty eradication. Poverty eradication in itself has always been high on the agenda. Yet over 800 million people still find themselves living in extreme poverty below US$1.90 per day. Next Victor Osei Kwadwo will discuss education as one of the key elements to transform society and to contribute to a more peaceful life. As summed up by Malala Yousafzai, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world”.

    This will be followed by a brief discussion on health by Haile Kaleab Kebede. Health is another key element for any human capital. But unlike its predecessor, SDG 3 is much broader in scope by addressing both lifestyle diseases and mental health. This requires an efficient health system, hence the focus not only on a normative gap but staffing and effective resource allocation.

    These three elements feed in to overall budget efficiency. To understand whether governments have the capacity to increase their allocated budget for social development, Bart Kleine Deters will discuss how selected countries perform in contrast to countries in their respective regions.

    All told, these blogs form a brief series highlighting how different components of the SDGs can be monitored and understood in comparison to a country’s fiscal capacity. By improving our understanding of how each theme is reflected in national budget lines, both international NGOs and local civil society will have a tool, based on numbers, to hold governments to account.


    This article originally appeared on the UNU-MERIT website on 6 September 2016.