Will governance be the first to go in post-2015 negotiations?

By Casey Dunning, Advisor to John Podesta for the U.N. High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Despite the multitude of pressing concerns discussed at this year’s UN General Assembly, the past week in New York has also managed to offer a glimmer of hope to the global community through the post-2015 agenda’s call to eradicate extreme poverty in less than two decades.

While this overarching goal has framed many of the inputs into the post-2015 process, including the Secretary-General’s report on the MDGs and the report of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, not much else is assured. A potential goal around governance and effective institutions sits squarely in the ‘at risk’ category of the post-2015 framework.

The inclusion of good governance and equitable institutions in the post-2015 agenda is vulnerable for a number of reasons, some obvious, some less so. This might seem surprising as civil society groups, the private sector, and every official input into the UN’s post-2015 process have included – if not outright championed – good governance as integral to the next set of goals.

The post-2015 process is now firmly in the inter-governmental phase, with the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals in the lead, and there is emerging common ground. Countries as diverse as Tanzania, Bangladesh, and the Netherlands have called for effective institutions and rule of law within the post-2015 framework. Yet there is concern that the Open Working Group has scheduled discussions around governance and institutions for its final meeting, arguably leaving one of the most contentious issues to the eleventh hour.

Another reason to fear the absence of governance in the post-2015 agenda is the lack of data and viable indicators. Unlike metrics around reducing HIV/AIDS or eliminating gender disparities in schools, finding reliable, comparable, global metrics around effective institutions is much more difficult. Nearly everyone wants to stem corruption and increase public participation; nearly no one agrees on the best ways to implement and measure these admittedly vague concepts.

Finally, the vocal constituency around effective governance and institutions in the post-2015 agenda has yet to meaningfully coalesce and offer singular, concrete ideas on what essential elements should be in the next set of development goals. The pendulum swings wildly on any given day – police reform, justice sector capacity building, bribery reduction, budget transparency. All are incredibly worthy issues. But for governance to maintain a credible place in the post-2015 agenda, groups must streamline their messages to a suite of issues that are well-understood, data-driven, and politically feasible.

But all is not lost in the push to include governance in the post-2015 agenda. For one, some elements of the governance agenda have garnered wide-ranging support. Measurable indicators like universal legal identity and effective property and land tenure rights get at the efficacy of critical institutions without importing value-laden agendas or threatening national sovereignty.

And importantly, the United Nations system is well behind the governance agenda. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognised governance as a “key element of the emerging vision for the development agenda beyond 2015” in his report, A Life of Dignity for All. Incoming UN General Assembly President John Ashe has pushed “ensuring accessible institutions of justice [and] enhancing the capacity and accountability of good governance mechanisms” as one of the key areas of inquiry during his tenure.

Indeed, the centrality of effective institutions to the development enterprise is roundly recognised. John Podesta, U.S., representative to the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, puts the sustainability of the post-2015 agenda in jeopardy should governance issues not be included: “We know that without strong and accountable institutions, development just doesn't work over the long run. I think that is why there is increasing recognition that we need to get things like institutions and transparency right as part of the post-2015 agenda.”

It is critical that good governance and effective, inclusive institutions are a part of the post-2015 agenda. Strong progress here could mean that, in 2030 at the 85th session of the UN General Assembly, the nations of the world are talking not about a new civil war or conflict, but the success of sustainable development and the end of extreme poverty.