Why did we fail in sustainable development

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The “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” needs a coherent focus on governance and peace

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Fiedler, Charlotte / Mark Furness / Jörn Grävingholt / Julia Leininger
The Current Column (2015)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The current column, October 12, 2015)

Bonn, October 12, 2015. At the end of September, the international community met in New York to discuss the new '2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development' and its goals (Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs) to discuss and decide. An important difference to the previous Millennium Development Goals (Millennium Development Goals, MDGs) is SDG 16, which emphasizes the importance of peace, good governance and inclusive institutions for sustainable development. This is a decisive step forward because the MDGs carefully and deliberately avoided these important issues.

The SDGs should be inspiring calls for action because they are part of a global agenda that all UN member states have agreed to. Unfortunately, the sub-goals of SDG 16 do not match this. In particular, they lack a convincing narrative and a clear logic that makes it clear how the core elements of the goal - peace and good governance - can be achieved. A certain degree of fuzziness in the formulation of SDG 16 was inevitable in order to reach a political consensus, but the mere listing of various aspects related to peace and good governance does not in itself produce a coherent strategy. In addition, peace and good governance are eminently political issues. Advances in these areas cannot be reduced to the technical level of institutional effectiveness and efficiency.

But strengthening a coherent narrative for SDG 16 is still possible. It is now a matter of designing the indicators against which the achievement of the goals is to be measured in the future in such a way that for all ten sub-goals, their connection with peace and good governance becomes clear. Some of the sub-goals of SDG 16 clearly relate to the two main themes: the rule of law, political freedoms, inclusive institutions and the reduction of corruption are governance issues, and the prevention of violence and the flow of arms are peace issues. However, other issues, such as the fight against organized crime, illegal financial flows or the provision of birth registration, rather implicitly point to a comprehensive failure to build functioning and inclusive public institutions. Without such institutions, however, sustained progress on the more specific targets will remain unattainable.

Some of the SDG 16 targets also show either too much or too little ambition, which increases the risk that even well-intentioned efforts are doomed to failure from the start. Some are worded in such a way that it is practically impossible to get them Not to achieve, for example “promoting the rule of law” or “strengthening the relevant national institutions (...) to prevent violence”. Other sub-goals set the bar too high. For example, one sub-goal obliges the federal states to “ensure inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”, while another calls for an end to all forms of violence against children. While all of this is of course highly desirable, hardly any country can claim to have achieved these goals.

In view of the openly formulated sub-goals, the selection and definition of the indicators will inevitably have a major impact on the actual focus of the efforts under SDG 16. Although many of the indicators currently being discussed represent a useful focus on the sub-goals, others run the risk that they represent only a side aspect of the actually intended sub-goal. Without a doubt, SDG 16 addresses issues that are generally difficult to measure. However, this must not lead to the neglect of important but more difficult to measure sub-goals in favor of more easily measurable ones.

SDG 16 is of paramount importance for the global '2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development'. Many countries have long hesitated to admit that poor governance fuels conflict and hinders development. However, the period from 2001–2015 clearly showed that fragile states, which are characterized by weak governance, had the greatest difficulties in achieving the MDGs. By including SDG 16, the 2030 Agenda now recognizes that global sustainable development is not possible without progress in the areas of good governance and peace. Indeed, SDG 16 is both an important goal in itself and an essential means of supporting the other goals. It is regrettable that the political sensitivity of the SDG 16 subject prevented the goal from being formulated in a concise, easily communicated and action-oriented manner. In order to achieve SDG 16, a coherent strategy is needed as to how politically highly sensitive issues for which there are no simple technical solutions can be tackled. Finding good solutions here will be the decisive challenge in the next few years so that SDG 16 can become the key to unlocking the potential of the 2030 agenda.

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