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A growing global gap on good governance?

July 18th, 2019

Alex Thier reflects on the importance of democratic governance for sustainable development following the High Level Political Forum in New York. 


Sitting in the grand halls of the United Nations this week, I am struck by a dangerous dichotomy. Lip service is paid (rightly and repeatedly) to the principles of inclusive, accountable governance, human rights, and the rule of law. And with good reason: there is powerful evidence that progress on our biggest challenges is simply not sustainable without them. BUT by many measures, democracy, rights, and the rule of law are moving in the wrong direction around the world. So how do we make sense of, and reverse these contradictory trends?

At a time when fundamental freedoms are under assault, we must robustly join the debate about whether democratic, rights respecting, inclusive societies are really better for us? It is a complicated question (what is democratic? what is better? over what timeframe?), but a few pieces of evidence should guide us. First, the long-term correlation between scores on the UN’s human development index and measurers like political freedom and rule of law is an unabashed home run. Over time, the countries with the lowest child mortality, highest life expectancy, lowest levels of extreme poverty, highest literacy rates have been consistently at the top of governance charts as well.

And new evidence is emerging that recent democratic transitions can have a real impact on human development. For example, a recent article in the Lancet showed boosts in life expectancy resulting from increased citizen accountability. For those of us living in oppressive societies or who grew up reading Solzhenitsyn and Orwell, the proposition that freedom itself has value to the individual should be uncontroversial.

Of course, the evidence is extreme at the other end of the scale as well. Estimates suggest that by 2030, 85 percent of the extreme poor are likely to be located in fragile states, where citizens are too often denied basic rights and dignity.

That’s why peace, planet, and prosperity – the core of the Sustainable Development Goals – all require the critical enabler of Goal 16.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals
(Photo: The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals)

But at the very moment of maximum need, we may be losing ground. Publications like the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index have noted serious global declines in recent years, with leading scholars like Stanford’s Larry Diamond declaring a “democracy recession.” We witness the closing space for civil society around the world, alongside increasingly unabashed kleptocratic authoritarianism.

It was good to see that the UK’s Voluntary National Review, launched at the UN this week, has closely examined the progress of democratic norms at home. But the need for and contribution of the UK to promote and protect fundamental freedoms and accountable institutions abroad was given short shrift. Indeed, the word “democracy” didn’t appear in the section on “UK action around the world.”

When the world’s heads of state convene at the UN in September, there will be a new UK Prime Minister, a new EU President, and a slate of issues like climate change, Ebola, and nuclear (dis)agreements requiring leaders around the world to answer not only to each other, but to their own people. It is time to match rhetoric with reality and invest in the inclusive, effective, and democratic institutions needed to meet these challenges.


Alex Thier was ODI Executive Director 2017 – 2019 and previously a senior official at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Alex founded Triple Helix, a US-based consultancy firm working on organizational strategy and increasing off-grid, renewable energy in Africa and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @Thieristan.




(Main photo: The 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests)

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