Did the SDGs just forget about the state?

My research is based on a very simple premise: effective and inclusive states are a necessary component of development. It is not a radical idea, and far from a new one: the co-evolution of states, markets and democracies is the backbone of modern economics, sociology and politics. That is why the process of coming up with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has received some attention from myself and other colleagues: after the politically neutered MDGs, the SDGs held a promise of taking politics seriously for a change. We welcomed the inclusion of Goal 16 in the final list, even if it came with a far too ambitious and convoluted title: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. The proof was in the pudding, however, and the Expert Group of the UN Statistical Commission has now released its proposed list of indicators for measuring SDG progress. Sadly, of the 12 targets comprised under Goal 16, only 3 have anything to do with state effectiveness and inclusion, and none of the proposed indicators actually captures the key analytical ingredients of my premise.

Target 16.5: Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms

It reads like an ambitious target, and yet the only indicator proposed is focused on public officials soliciting bribes. This pretty much limits corruption to instances in which public officials interface directly with the public, such as basic service delivery, which is heavily biased against countries in which petty corruption is the norm. The goal does nothing to capture political or bureaucratic corruption as it relates to budget execution or auditing; a country like Spain, where dozens of politicians are currently on trial for graft and embezzlement, would appear as almost 100% clean. The fact that the indicator is a percentage of the population reporting being asked for bribes also downplays the role of infrequent but highly significant bribes and kickbacks involved in public procurement: a 10% kickback on a $300 million public works contract would weigh the same as a $1 bribe in exchange for an aspirin. The proposed indicator obviously does even begin to address the goal of reducing corruption and bribery in all their forms.

Target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

This target gets two proposed indicators. The first one is a measure of government expenditure as a percentage of original approved budget, which presumably captures the dimension of effectiveness, even if only at the central government level. But in fact expenditure tells us nothing about effectiveness: pork-barrel programmes can be budgeted and executed in full, as can ill-conceived public programmes that keep corrupt and inefficient public servants employed. The implementation chain involves many more steps than just budget preparation and disbursement. The second indicator is the proportion of the population satisfied with their last experience of public services. This indicator has two basic conceptual problems: one, it does not have a baseline of public expectations given such things as state capacity or public knowledge about service availability; two, it limits “satisfaction” to those areas of the state that people have a direct experience of, which does not include large swaths of regulation of markets and the private sector, or much of administrative law regarding the functioning of the state itself. Moreover, the indicator is related to service-providing levels of government, which are unequally distributed across countries: in some places education and health are decentralized, whereas in others they are not. Without a weighting logic that controls for this cross-country variation, the indicator doesn’t actually tell us much. Even taken together, these two indicators are basically a subjective measure of perceived effectiveness, which on top of that say nothing about accountability or transparency.

Target 16.7: Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

What we could call the ‘quasi democratic’ goal, this one is supported by two indicators: the distribution of identity groups in positions of power relative to their distribution in society, and the acknowledgment of youth’s multisectoral needs in national plans. Let us start with the latter: national plans are rarely implemented, or at least they rarely entail a legal or budgetary obligation. I bet all countries have by now some sort of “national plan” about youth, but that tells us little about whether youths are actually included in decision-making. Going back to the first indicator, there is a clear “quota” logic behind it: 55% of women MP automatically translates into the interests of women (55% of the population) being represented in policy. Only that is not at all the case: women don’t necessarily vote as women, just like Scots don’t necessarily vote as scots; sometimes they vote as workers and employers, as parents or retirees, as believers or partisans. This indicators essentializes representation by implying that one and only one aspect of identity (gender, ability, age, ethnicity) is the valid marker of political representation. Let us not even get into the question that mere participation does not mean influence…

Slim pickings

So what do we end up with? Three targets that are not fully captured by their proposed indicators. Self-reported, highly subjective and selective measures of corruption. Self-reported, highly subjective and potentially misleading measures of efficiency. And an essentializing notion of identity that equals formal representation with policy influence. There is very little in Goal 16 about actual state effectiveness, and only a very superficial understanding of political inclusion. In the process of coming up with indicators, Goal 16 has become effectively toothless:

  • unable to identify highly corrupt politics and biased against petty corruption;
  • neglectful of the dynamics of state capacity and performance that happen away from the public’s eye;
  • naive in its conception of representation and inclusion.

We sort of expected that this would be the case ultimately, but it is still unsettling and highly disappointing to witness a tactical retreat from politics at such an early stage. Without a firm understanding of the underlying politics, the SDGs can only present a lopsided and facile version of development: diplomatically comfortable, for sure, but useless for anything more than fund-raising and PR.