A Bahraini pro-democracy protester gestures in front of a wall sprayed with anti-government graffiti. Photograph: Hasan Jamali/AP
‘The sustainable development goals may not mention democracy, but their focus on the accountability of political institutions will be key to improved governance’
The slow unfolding of the sustainable development goals continued last month with the unveiling of the zero draft that will be negotiated in the runup to the summit in New York in September.
How does the draft of 17 goals look from the perspective of an organisation dedicated to helping countries to strengthen democracy? The answer is not bad, but not good.
On the plus side, it is good that there is a goal 16 at all. The draft goal reads: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
There was no equivalent in the millennium development goals (MDGs), and it is welcome that goal 16 includes a target of ensuring “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels”.
I like all those words, which embody a commendable set of ambitions. The target of “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels” is a good transposition of text from the UN high-level panel report on the post-2015 development agenda co-chaired by the presidents of Liberia and Indonesia and the British prime minister, which included all three adjectives.
On the minus side, there are two main gaps.
First, the word “democracy” itself has not been used, nor any variant such as “democratic accountability”. That is disappointing but not surprising, even though the Millennium Declaration, which formed the basis of the MDGs, did make specific calls for these conditions to be included.
My guess is that the word “democracy”, perhaps less popular now than it was 15 years ago, was blocked by the sensitivities of UN politics.
The second gap is the failure to address the key instruments of representative democracy, namely parliaments or political parties. Again, this is disappointing but not surprising. There is a presumption in the text that the executive are the main actors, rather than the representatives of citizens. Indeed, the high-level panel called for someone (implicitly governments) to grant rights (such as freedom of speech) to people, rather than for people to act to curb the powers of the executive.
So what should be the response of those interested in strengthening democracy? We need to do two things.
First, we should demystify democracy. Democracy is not a western plot, it is a universal value. Virtually all countries have aspects of democratic culture in place to some degree, and absolutely every country has room to strengthen the quality of their democracy.
I would like to build common ground about the aspects of democracy that are important regardless of region or political grouping. That would make work on achieving the targets in goal 16 much more useful.
Second, the Millennium Declaration is still relevant when it says that we should “work collectively for more inclusive political processes, allowing genuine participation by all citizens in all our countries”. We should rebalance our thinking about national responsibilities, taking up that challenge of putting people and their representatives first. This links back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The central task of the declaration, and of the Magna Carta for that matter, was to curb the power of the executive – which, unchecked, tends to be abused.
In the vast majority of countries, we should look at the role of parliaments, the judiciary, civil society and the media, as well as the executive, when considering how to secure objectives encapsulated in goal 16.
A report by Civicus called for new forms of representation and oversight, such as citizens’ panels. Institutions should be “tested on their ability to respond to and achieve progress on issues identified by people rather than just governments”, it added.
The sentiment certainly reflects the level of concern many people feel about traditional representative institutions. Building common ground on what democracy means, and helping to improve the quality of representation in our countries, go hand in hand and are both worth pursuing.
Goal 16 is imperfect and is almost at the bottom of the list of proposed SDGs. But the glass is half full. Politics and the development community have been uncomfortable partners in many ways, and this is a chance to work together to help political systems do a better job. If we succeed, then we will have fulfilled the promise of the Millennium Declaration – citizens of all countries working together to put sustainable development at the centre of the agenda and hold governments to account for their actions.
Anthony Smith is chief executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy
Source: Guardian Global Development