Paper 2.2 Good, Effective and Equitable Governance and the SDGs

Paper 2

Good, Effective and Equitable Governance and the SDGs

Steven Bernstein


There are two aspects of governance and the SDGs:

1) Governance and institutional arrangements that support action, implementation and review of the SDGs; and

2) Governance as a goal that the SDGs can promote and pursue most directly articulated in draft goal 16.

The two are related, although focus my remarks mainly on the second in line with the themes today. Many of my comments are drawn from a policy brief I distributed in advance, co-written with a number of my colleagues and based on a wider research effort within the Earth System Governance Project (Biermann et al., 2014).

The Goal of Governance

A major message is that three aspects of governance need to be considered in integrating governance into the SDGs.

First is good governance, which focuses on processes of decision making and their institutional foundations. Good governance has long been identified as an important priority, including in the Millennium Declaration and in the policies and programs of a wide range of international processes and institutions. Values such as enhanced participation and inclusion, transparency, accountability and access to information are encompassed by this concept. Good governance has also focused on combatting corruption, securing basic human rights and the rule of law. Most of the governance-related targets under draft goal 16 focus on good governance, even though it is not explicitly named in the draft goal or targets. At the same time, the risk of focusing exclusively on good governance is that it has also been associated with conditionality in development assistance, top-down approaches, and an over-emphasis on the protection of investment and property rights while giving less attention to social goals, even though the concept in principle is very relevant to both. It would be important to ensure this broader meaning is considered in developing indicators that are relevant for different contexts and country conditions but based on common principles.

The second aspect is effective governance, or the problem-solving capacity of governments, or countries more broadly, to pursue sustainable development. Effective governance is linked to institutional capacity, technology, expertise and financial resources and the ability to engage in long-term planning to deal with interconnected problems, not just procedural elements such as the rule of law. Capacity building is obviously the most directly relevant existing target “ included as target 17.9 under the broader goal to revitalize a partnership for sustainable development but it is only one piece of effective institutions and governing capacity. Developing indicators are very challenging for effective governance. It may be more useful to think in terms of monitoring, review and accountability mechanisms for governing institutions such as stress tests but applied beyond financial institutions or road marker indicators to measure progress that requires countries to initiate monitoring, improved transparency or other processes rather than to achieve some quantitative improvement.

Equitable governance, which focuses attention on distributional outcomes and equitable treatment, including of the very poor and marginalized, is the third element of governance as the goal. A notion of equitable governance applies both to decision-making, including ongoing demands for greater equity in global decision-making, especially in economic governance, but also to the distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities within societies. While there are long-standing controversies on how best to frame and respond to equity concerns, there is no disagreement on the need to reduce extreme forms of economic inequality.

While these three different aspects of governance have a number of connections between them, they may require separate political efforts. To most fully integrate governance into the SDGs, it is important to take account of all three aspects.

Governance as both a Standalone and Cross-Cutting Goal

Making important components of governance part of Goal 16, in addition to recognizing the cross-cutting importance of good governance, equity and human rights for achieving all goals in the current draft preamble, are positive developments. They also reflect arguments made by the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons (2013). Including these elements of governance in a goal with targets offers the best opportunity to incorporate all three aspects of governance in a comprehensive way into the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. However, as currently formulated, the targets in goal 16 tend to privilege the traditional category of “good” governance over effective or equitable governance.

Some elements of the other two aspects of governance are nonetheless covered in other goals. For example, gender rights and equality appear in various goals, especially in goal 5, with a number of targets that suggest that equal opportunities for women and girls to access educational, economic and technological resources will enable achieving sustainable development. Similarly, SDG 10 focuses on reducing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income within and among countries. Less clear is how to translate these other aspects of governance into specific institutional settings that facilitate or require policies at multiple levels that can reduce high levels of inequality and further the eradication of poverty. Thus, while identifying these various elements in different SDGs can be seen as positive, their separation can draw attention away from the interconnectedness of these difference aspects of governance as important means relevant to making progress on all goals. In that regard, achieving effective and equitable governance is closely linked to means of implementation and the institutional arrangements to facilitate and promote those means, at all levels.

Appropriate Institutional Arrangements

What are the appropriate institutional arrangements to promote coherence, effective action and implementation that link directly to the three elements of governance above? I want to focus on just one illustrative example of how governance concerns link to institutional arrangements for achieving the SDGs: the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development and its role in promoting wide-ranging action on the SDGs.

First, I encourage governments and stakeholders to think of the HLPF on Sustainable Development as potentially playing an orchestrating role in the governance of the SDGs (Abbott and Bernstein 2015). To be clear, I do not mean orchestration in the grand musical sense, but in the everyday sense of managing, coordinating and combining policies since the actual implementation and action on the SDGs will be primarily through other parts of the UN system, partnerships, regional commissions and other regional organizations, action networks, a myriad of private sector and societal actors, communities and, of course, national governments. IN Chapter 6 Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah and Mandeep Tiwana arguments (this e-book) on the need for civil society and civic space couldn’t be clearer; constraints on stakeholder participation and engagement could jeopardize successful orchestration by the HLPF both in terms of it gaining the necessary support and legitimacy and for it to facilitate the necessary action. In sum, elements of inclusive, participatory governance and engagement are vitally important for mobilizing action through partnerships and voluntary commitments which are widely recognized as a primary means of implementation.

Research on partnerships has shown that criteria for success include not only clear quantifiable goals and institutionalized review (elements of needed for effective governance); but also a true multi-stakeholder character (elements of equitable and good governance). The same studies (e.g., Baeckstrand and Kylsaeter, 2014) note significant underrepresentation of women, indigenous peoples, youth and children, and farmers. Indicators of good, equitable and effective governance could also be applied to action networks and partnerships in their internal governance, and the HLPF could recognize those partnerships and networks that embody these characteristics for example by showcasing them or inviting them to side events or roundtables.

Of course, there are many other ways in which good, effective, and equitable governance can combine in practice, and the literature on international development has long recognized the importance of governance capacities, architecture, and reforms for achieving many development goals. The illustration above is meant mostly, simply, to suggest that governance, in all its aspects, as opposed to being an afterthought, is integral to achieving the SDGs. Many of the challenges the SDGs aim to address are fundamentally problems of governance, or at least require better governance to address them. But there is also a broader reason to pay attention to all three aspects of governance: so the focus on specific challenges also includes attention to the broader normative agenda that the UN has long promoted, which includes good governance, human rights, and equity (Browne 2014). The SDGs should be seen to be a part of, as opposed to, that broader agenda.


Abbott, K. A. and Bernstein, S. (2015) ˜The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development: Orchestration by Default and Design’, Global Policy doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12199.

Baeckstrand, K. and Kylsaeter, M. (2014) Old Wine in New Bottles? The Legitimation and Delegitimation of UN Public“Private Partnerships for Sustainable Development from the Johannesburg Summit to the Rio +20 Summit’, Globalizations vol 11, no 3, pp331-347.

Biermann, F., Stevens, C., Bernstein, S., Gupta, A., Kabiri, N., Kanie, N., Levy, M., Nilsson, M., Pinter, L., Scobie, M. and Young, O. (2014) Integrating Governance into the Sustainable Development Goals, POST2015/UNU-IAS Policy Brief #3. Tokyo: United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Browne, S (2014) A Changing World: Is the UN Development System Ready?, Third World Quarterly vol 35, no 10, pp1845-1859.

UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (2013) A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development, United Nations, New York.

Steven Bernstein is Associate Chair and Graduate Director, Department of Political Science and Co-Director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. His research spans the areas of global governance and institutions, global environmental politics, non-state forms of governance, international political economy, and internationalization of public policy.

Bernstein’s publications include: Unsettled Legitimacy: Political Community, Power, and Authority in a Global Era (co-edited, 2009), Global Liberalism and Political Order: Toward a New Grand Compromise? (co-edited, 2007), A Globally Integrated Climate Policy for Canada (co-edited, 2007) and The Compromise of Liberal Environmentalism (2001), as well as many articles in refereed academic journals  including European Journal of International Relations, Science, Review of International Political Economy, Journal of International Economic Law, International Affairs, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Policy Sciences, Regulation and Governance and Global Environmental Politics. He was recently a convening lead author and member of the Global Forest Expert Panel on the International Forest Regime and a consultant on institutional reform for the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.













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