Paper 4.3 Parliaments role in monitoring the implementation of the SDGs
Parliament’s role in monitoring the implementation of the SDGs
With the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now well within view, this is the time for the world community to turn its attention to the key question of implementation. An effective infrastructure of processes, institutions, and legal frameworks will need to be created or fine-tuned at the national and global level to support the implementation of the SDGs consistently and over a long period of time.
Implementation rests critically on accountability: simply having an infrastructure in place does not guarantee results. As the primary institution of accountability at the national level, where the SDGs will apply most immediately, parliaments must play a critical role in carrying forward the new agenda. The SDGs will need to be translated into national legislation, including the pivotal budget bill, which is for parliaments to enact.
Like the MDGs, the SDGs will constitute a voluntary regime that no international organization can legally enforce. The goals and prioritization of the targets will need to be adaptable to each country’s circumstances and allow countries sufficient policy space to determine how best to move forward. Not every SDG may apply to each country, but for those goals that do apply there has to be a firm commitment toward implementation by all national actors, including the parliament. Countries will need to develop national sustainable development strategies to translate the global goals into national ones, and with corresponding country-specific targets.
The mitigated success of the MDGs can be attributed to a large extent to poor implementation, as opposed to problems intrinsic to the goals themselves. As a universal agenda that will apply to both developed and developing countries, the SDGs will demand an even higher standard and a stronger commitment than the MDGs. What is needed to achieve the SDGs, then, is nothing short of their full institutionalization at all levels of decision-making, including parliaments.
This chapter discusses some of the key conditions that must come together for parliaments to do their part in the implementation of the SDGs. An underlying assumption is that the SDGs will be crafted to target the real causes of poverty and unsustainable development rather than the consequences. This will be a key condition to ensure parliamentary engagement in the process.
What Parliaments Can Do
Reform politics: it is self-evident yet often overlooked that the SDGs will not succeed without a strong political will. Even the most sophisticated implementation infrastructure will fail if the political environment is not conducive to progressive reforms that will result in stronger democratic governance at all levels and in all countries.
One of the main obstacles to sustainable development everywhere is that too much of the political process is dominated by particular interests that overlook the common good and ultimately thwart the legislative and regulatory process. A second problem is the inherent tendency of politicians to sacrifice the long-term perspective that sustainable development requires the short-term pressure of the electoral cycle. Third, in many countries, the dividing line between executive and legislative powers remains too permeable, with the executive often ignoring or steamrolling the legislative branch to avoid engaging in open debate.
To successfully implement the SDGs parliaments will need to be better equipped politically to move the agenda forward, engage people from all constituencies, and create the conditions for a new era of consensus politics. As the branch of government most representative of the people, parliaments will need to ensure that the SDGs are truly owned by the people, raising awareness and hearing their views and that the public, in turn, applies pressure on decision-makers to work hard toward implementation. In many places, this will require a new relationship with civil society and other stakeholders as well as stronger engagement with marginalized or vulnerable groups.
There is no easy solution to the influence that special interests tend to apply on decision-makers in all countries, developed and developing, or to the short-term horizon of the next election. At a very deep level, reforms will be needed to limit the influence of money in the electoral process so that elected representatives will be free to act in the best interest of all their constituents.
More generally, parliaments themselves will need to be more open and accountable to the people. A special focus should be on ensuring that all groups and sectors of society are represented in parliament, particularly women (worldwide, only 21% of parliamentary seats are occupied by women), and other groups such as indigenous peoples and linguistic and cultural minorities. Information technologies (eParliament) should be utilized more consistently and widely to make parliaments more transparent and to that allow for closer and timelier consultations with constituents.
Ideally, each parliament needs to perform a self-Âevaluation of its own working methods, rules, and procedures, to make sure that they are as representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective as possible. In some countries, deep reforms may be needed directly within the party system as a pillar of parliamentary life.
Review committee structures: an overarching problem in policy-Ââ€making is that governments and parliaments tend to operate in silos. There is a ministry or parliamentary committee for the economy, one for the environment, one for trade etc., with too little coordination to effectively integrate all three pillars of sustainable development into a single policy approach.
This long-standing problem will be compounded by the SDGs, which will consist of a complex set of goals and targets. Very clearly it will not be sufficient to parcel out each goal to a specific ministry or parliamentary committee given that the goals will all be interlinked in one way or another. Similarly, there is a continuing need to promote greater policy coherence between ostensibly unrelated policy areas (trade, finance, development cooperation, monetary policy etc.).
Parliaments are generally not equipped to promote this higher level of integration and coherence. Each parliament will need to perform an internal evaluation of how equipped it is institutionally to carry forward the SDGs and from there determine the best way to proceed. What is needed in the first instance is a review of the committee structure and all related processes to more effectively mainstream the new goals.
Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) studies show that, while not every parliament may need an SDG-specific committee or caucus (depending on the existing committee architecture), it may be a good idea to establish such a body provided that it is endowed with a strong coordinating and oversight mandate as well as sufficient resources.
A well-Ââ€functioning and inclusive (of all parties) SDG committee can help vet all legislation emanating from the portfolio committees against the SDGs or an equivalent set of goals adjusted to the country’s own priorities. This should include a participatory process allowing for hearings with civil society, the private sector and other groups, direct interaction with all government departments, as well as the authority to demand reports or convene expert witnesses. To be most effective, such a committee should consist of the Chairs of the portfolio committees or other senior members. It may also need authority to block draft legislation until further review.
With respect to the key budget process, any SDG committee that may be constituted would ideally require a three-part mandate: first, to help determine a full costing of the SDGs at the country level, identifying the financing requirements and corresponding funding sources; second, to take the lead in ensuring that adequate provisions for the SDGs will be made in the national budget; third, to monitor budget expenditures for the SDGs and evaluate their impact. Where a specialized SDGs committee cannot be established due to limited capacities, procedural constraints or other factors, then a caucus or task force may be constituted to fulfill some of these functions.
A committee structure review within each parliament should pay particular attention to other cross-cutting issues such as gender and human rights. These issues feature prominently in the SDGs and in any case, should constitute the litmus test of all legislation and of parliamentary oversight. Specialized committees (or caucuses) for gender and human rights exist in many parliaments and have long shown their effectiveness. These structures should provide input to the SDG committee (where one is established) or directly to the portfolio committees in ways that may effectively ensure that all issues are dealt with from gender and human rights perspectives.
Engage in design and oversight of national plans: a mainstay of SDGs implementation will undoubtedly be the design and effective oversight of national sustainable development plans (or their equivalents). The number of countries that have developed such plans over the years has risen steadily, yet there is little qualitative control for these plans as well as insufficient information on parliamentary oversight.
Going forward, parliaments will need to more pro-Ââ€actively demand from their governments that a plan aligned with the SDGs is prepared and then sent to parliament for review through an open, consultative process involving all sectors of society. Once the plan is adopted, the parliament should demand a yearly report on the implementation and hold regular public hearings. This process, in turn, should lead to recommendations for future reforms. In many countries, parliamentary engagement in the national planning process should be actively supported by the UN field operation.
An important entry point for parliaments to exercise oversight of the national plan may come from the international arena, through the peer review process that will be set up within the new High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). Governments will be invited to present a progress report to the HLPF at regular intervals. Parliaments should demand to be involved in the drafting of the report or at least allowed to review it before it is submitted. A similar process is being utilized, with assistance from the IPU, in the reporting exercise of the CEDAW, as well as that of the Universal Periodic Review. While this practice has yet to mature, it has a great potential to effectively support the implementation of the SDGs in each country.
Support national councils and other consultative/regulatory bodies: As a general practice, strengthening independent regulatory and monitoring bodies can help establish progressive norms and practices in ways that are less susceptible to political in-Ââ€fight and the short-Ââ€term pressure of the electoral cycle. Primary among these bodies is the National Councils for sustainable development, which can contribute greatly to the SDGs debate in every country if they are appropriately empowered as independent watchdogs outside of all political interference.
Parliaments should provide the legislative mandate and resources (through the budget process) to allow National Councils to function as incubators of new ideas and approaches, stir debate and promote research (through academic and scientific bodies), including through a grant-making facility, and garner the views of all concerned groups. The report of the National Council to the government should be sent to parliament for a comprehensive review.
A similar dynamic applies to other independent agencies and consultative bodies that can play a key role in advancing the sustainability agenda provided they are properly equipped with resources and with a sufficiently strong mandate. Regulatory agencies should be given broad powers under the law to impose rules (consistent with the national sustainable development plan) at an industry or sector level.
Supreme Audit Institutions will need the full protection of the law and adequate resources for data collection and analysis to provide an independent review of all budget expenditures, with reports submitted directly to the parliament.
Strengthen capacities: parliamentary capacities to support the legislative and oversight process remain generally lacking, and not only in developing countries. There is an obvious tension between governments and parliaments when it comes to the allocation of resources between the two branches: governments want to be in control of the policy process and so tend to allocate more of their (often limited) resources to strengthen their own structures and processes. Few governments recognize the long-term benefit of strengthening the legislative and oversight functions of their parliament.
For their part, donor agencies remain reluctant to invest in the capacities of parliaments for at least two reasons: the high risk and long-term commitment required in parliamentary strengthening does not fit snugly within the short-term, results-based outlook of their technical assistance programmes; and, donors fear being seen as meddling in internal national politic. Recent surveys of the UN Development Cooperation Forum show that, on the whole, parliaments are less likely to receive support from international donors than other development partners and tend to be left out of national aid coordination structures. Yet, investing in parliamentary capacities is perhaps the best catalytic use of official assistance that governments can make.
With respect to the capacities of parliaments to perform their legislative and oversight functions effectively, the picture varies dramatically from country to country but the common denominator is that almost everywhere more should be done. For example, although more and more parliamentary budget offices are being established around the world, most of them have only limited capacities to provide long-Âterm revenue projections, cost-benefit evaluations of public expenditures, and other such analysis to support parliamentary scrutiny of government policy.
Parliaments also suffer from the same lack of disaggregated data (by gender, social groups, region etc.) that pervades other spheres of government. This makes it difficult for many parliaments to track progress on agreed policy objectives and to target policy at specific needs or vulnerable groups in society, a specific requirement of the SDGs.
Capacities are not limited to human resources, technical processes or physical assets. Another aspect of parliamentary strengthening relates to the legal authority that parliaments have to perform their functions. As the IPU has found, many parliaments, including several in developed countries, lack sufficient authority to engage in the negotiation of international loan agreements, which indirectly may impact the overall direction of development policy. This legal capacity will need to be reviewed in many parliaments with a view to expanding their authority to ask questions of the government or to participate in key government-led development processes.
Every parliament has a key role to play in ensuring that the relevant SDGs are implemented according to its country’s circumstances and policy priorities. There is no single intervention to make this possible but rather a constellation of processes and capacities that must come together to varying degrees in all countries.
The Member States need to take stock of the role of parliaments as a key determinant of the success of the SDGs. To this effect, it will be critical that parliaments are highlighted in the SDGs themselves as part of a stand-alone governance goal. A commitment to strengthening parliaments under this goal will support all of the SDGs for years to come.
Analytical study of parliamentary mechanisms for the MDGs (2010)
Enhancing parliaments role in aid and development effectiveness (comparative study of four case studies: Cambodia, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Zambia) (2010)
Global Policy Forum (GPF) Turning public budgets towards sustainability: A guide to environmental–social budgeting (2014)
House of Commons of the United Kingdom Hearing of the International Development Committee on Parliamentary Strengthening (18 November 2014)
Inter-Parliamentary Union –Parliamentary oversight of international loan agreements and related processes (with World Bank and IMF) (2013) Guidelines for women’s caucuses (2013)
Review of the existing parliamentary structures and processes related to the MDGs in the parliament of Nigeria (2012)
UN Development Cooperation Forum Third Global Accountability Survey on Mutual Accountability (2014)
UNDP Parliamentary Engagement with the Millennium Development Goals: a manual for use in parliaments (2010)
Alessandro Motter is Senior Advisor (economic and social affairs), Inter-Parliamentary Union. In this capacity over the last 11 years, Motter follows the work of the UN and helps support parliamentary engagement in major UN deliberative processes on sustainable development. Previously, he worked as a consultant at UNESCO (with a focus on poverty and the informal economy) and as a legislative assistant to a member of the Ontario Legislature (Canada). His personal perspective on sustainable development stems from the “steady state” school of economic thought which questions the foundations of the prevailing growth model – drawing its inspiration from thinkers such as Ivan Illich, Ernst Schumacker, and Herman Daly, among others. Motter holds a B.A in political science from the University of Toronto and an M.A. in international political economy from York University, Canada.