Accountability and the SDGs: Three reasons for optimism

It is traditional wisdom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the chain of governance needed to ensure that humanity moves resolutely towards sustainable development, the weak link is accountability, particularly at the international level.

By Mark Halle on August 4, 2015

It is traditional wisdom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In the chain of governance needed to ensure that humanity moves resolutely towards sustainable development, the weak link is accountability, particularly at the international level.

Good governance is made up of transparency (access to information relevant to the purpose of that governance); participation of those with a stake in the governance decisions; and accountability, including access to recourse when commitments are not honoured.  Over the past decades, the international governance of sustainable development has made a great deal of progress on the first two factors. Access to information is now routine for all, except for the most confidential of negotiating texts. The internet allows this information to be widely distributed in real time to anyone with the ability to get online. Further, attitudes have relaxed, in large part because the hard wall between what was once considered “official business” and what was in the public domain has largely broken down.

This also explains the vastly greater ability of genuine stakeholders to participate in a meaningful way in the debate around, and preparation of, decisions, even if their final adoption may be limited to government representatives. A great deal of creative work has gone into determining the genuine “stake” of participants in any decision, based on the extent to which the decision affects their rights, or requires them to accept new responsibility. 

However, if transparency and participation on their own were sufficient to ensure good governance, we would be far closer to sustainable development than we are today. Unfortunately, the genuine exercise of accountability has not kept pace with its governance companions.

Where accountability breaks down

Accountability tends to work better at the national level, as it does for the legal obligations of businesses, local officials or elements of civil society, greatly assisted by the press and social media. At the intergovernmental level, however, the means available to exercise accountability—at least in the sense of narrowing the gap between a promise and fulfillment of that promise—remain extremely limited. States insist on respect for their sovereignty and are loath to be judged by others. And with the principle that intergovernmental decisions are taken in most cases by consensus, the recalcitrance of a single state can undermine the value of any accountability system.

The impact of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 was not dampened because Agenda 21 was ill-conceived or incomplete, but because there was no effective mechanism—aside from moral argument—to ensure its comprehensive implementation. The same is true of the results of many other similar global efforts to move towards sustainable development, including the Millennium Development Goals. We know what needs to be done, but no state pays any real, individual price for failing to do it.

A new approach to accountability in the SDGs

We are now close to adopting a new agenda for global development, and a broad set of Sustainable Development Goals and targets to indicate specifically what must be done. A High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) has been established to track progress in implementation and to discuss how the means necessary for states to play their part can best be mobilized. But what is to say that the accountability mechanisms put in place will narrow the gap between promise and realization?

Three reasons justify a measure of optimism. First, the HLPF recognizes that the foundation of accountability must lie at the national level and has designed a bottom-up system of accountability that is based primarily on countries and their citizens assessing their own implementation record. While this does not in itself solve the problem of intergovernmental accountability, it is a sober recognition of the fact that accountability cannot be forced on states that do not wish it. To the extent that the national processes are open, inclusive and honest, the building blocks for global accountability will begin to be laid. The proposals before the HLPF envisage a regional approach based on aggregating the national reviews and drawing wider conclusions based on these, possibly including peer reviews built on existing experience, for example in Africa and the South Pacific. Finally, there will be a form of apex review at the HLPF itself, based on the regional reviews but including a range of other elements such as thematic reviews, reviews of action by UN entities, etc.

Second, it is now broadly accepted that nothing shuts the accountability door more surely than the prospect of a state being “punished” for poor performance, or even simply “named and shamed” before its peers. It is simply not realistic at the international level to base accountability on this notion. Instead, more attention is being paid to what IISD calls “positive accountability”—celebrating achievement and seeking means to accelerate and strengthen it, focusing on what it would take to improve implementation, on how best to remove obstacles to progress, and how to mobilize the means needed to do that.

Finally, and this is the least certain, there are proposals before the HLPF that would pinpoint its accountability role on what is not and cannot realistically be done at the national or regional level; for example regular reviews of themes, or of specific goals or sets of goals, or of mobilization of means of implementation. More important still might be the role the HLPF can play in reviewing how well the accountability system is working—a focus on the “accountability of accountability”.  This would ensure that the HLPF’s central brief is on ensuring that the accountability gap at the intergovernmental level can genuinely be filled.

Mark Halle is Vice-President, Strategy & Executive Director, IISD-Europe.

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