The ‘golden thread’ of good governance can help achieve all the SDGs

By Kerrie Doogan-Turner

As the dust settles on the post-2015 sustainable development goals, International Development Secretary Justine Greening has made clear her belief that the British contribution to achieving them means looking for support from beyond her department.

The Department for International Development (DFID) needs to draw on expertise from across all parts of British society, she told the Commons’ International Development Committee earlier this week.

Making progress, she suggested, requires an evolving approach. The new goals have shifted in focus; they now incorporate not only traditional markers of development like health, education and the environment but also broader ones like inequality, gender and governance. So to succeed DFID needs input not just from private sector and civil society but also, MPs heard, from “all our [British] institutions, heritage and experience to help other countries build their golden thread”.

The ‘golden thread’ was first outlined by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012, and referenced again by him in his speech at the United Nations in September 2015. He had outlined Britain’s commitment “to build accountable and transparent institutions and representative decision making to ensure everyone has a legal identity and access to information and to protect basic freedoms”.

Now the golden thread is at the core of the UK’s approach – and is reflected in goal 16 of the SDGs. This looks towards “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”. Effective institutions and good governance are at the heart of universal democratic principles, after all. In Justine Greening’s view, this approach is pivotal. “Development can happen,” she said, “but if you do not have good governance it’s like a millstone around the country’s neck. You cannot get as far as fast if you have corruption.”

Financial and Economic Analysis Office established with Ukraine Rada

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy understands this. Parliamentary strengthening is a vital part of the bigger picture of achieving progress in countries transitioning to democracy around the world.
We work closely with institutions to identify how we can best establish lasting change. Our work on financial oversight and scrutiny, for example, is fundamentally linked to achieving progress at the state level in education and health. If a parliament can scrutinise financial legislation effectively it can question where money is going and how much is being put back into the country to address development needs. So in countries like Tunisia and Ukraine we’re helping parliaments get a better grip on the figures, by working with Public Accounts Committees and developing offices which analyse financial and economic information.

It’s not just goal 16 which our work contributes to, either. A number of our programmes aim to tackle the pertinent issues of violence against women and girls, as well as getting more women into decision-making roles. Both are targeted by goal 5. Like the spread of good governance, the increase of women as decision-makers carries benefits for the communities they live in and politics more broadly.

Women in Politics panel discussion at University of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

But how do you measure those benefits? For all the SDGs, though, tracking progress poses a challenge. Counting the number of women candidates and the number of countries that operate quotas is one thing; achieving and measuring a change in social norms is a little trickier. We all await the announcement of key indicators measuring progress against the SDGs, which will be announced in March.

Those working on the indicators will have to grapple, for example, with the question of how to measure progress against the aim to “leave no group behind”. When IDC chair Stephen Twigg raised this in relation to women, youth and religious minorities, Justine Greening pointed to lessons from DFID’s work on FGM and child marriage. Achieving a change in social norms “needs all parts of society and a country pulling in the same direction”, she said. That certainly resonates with our experiences supporting the Women’s Coalition across the Middle East and North Africa.

The realities of politics and governance can often get in the way, too. Elections can completely transform the makeup of parliaments. Military coups can simply remove the government of the day. Even the realisation that conflict is spreading across a country can render its institutions redundant. But that’s just the way it is in democracy and governance. Change takes time. Capturing it requires patience. As the UK Government said about its Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, this is “patient, long-term work”.

“What an achievement,” Justine Greening said of goal 16. “It’s there now, in black and white, something we can come back to and work from.” At WFD we’re committed to doing so in the years ahead. We’ll work from it in countries that are tackling the instability associated with extremism, extreme poverty and migration. And we’ll work from it in more stable countries that are tackling either the threat of autocracy or the curse of low economic growth.

“We are going to need governance,” Nik Sekhran from UNDP emphasised in written evidence to MPs,“and we are going to need peaceful societies, otherwise there cannot be development”. WFD’s mission of supporting democratic transition will contribute to that. We’ll contribute to the Prime Minister’s ‘golden thread’ and ultimately the achievement of all the SDGs, too.

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