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How can U.N. measure if better governance programs work?

Anti-corruption and governance programs sound like a good way to help countries develop, but measuring their impact on ending extreme poverty remains elusive.

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Governance and Institutions

The most promising of the Open Working Group proposed targets is:

16.9 provide legal identity for all, including registering all births.

It has the potential to have a number of benefits both for governments and citizens that correspond to the larger aspirations of effectiveness, rule of law, and inclusive governance.  Furthermore, it can be verified and measured.  


Many of the proposed targets from the Open Working Group are very broad, and are more in the form of broad goals than workable targets.  They also bundle multiple dimensions of governance.  They are wish lists for transforming governance across the board.  These include the following:

16.6  develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels;

16.7  ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels;

16.10  ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

At this level of generality, it is not possible to make even general estimates of costs and benefits.  They would need to be unbundled into separate goals, and then indicators would need to be developed for specific areas.  Disaggregating broad categories such as effectiveness or accountability and finding more specific functional areas for each in which performance needs to be improved may provide a more useful focus.


As stated, the proposed target for corruption is also very broad:

16.5  to substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms.

It needs to be broken into smaller components relating to specific types of bribery and corruption, but by doing so could provide the basis of reasonable targets in the anti-corruption and accountability area.


Scroll down to read our set of reports examining governance and institutions targets for the post-2015 development agenda, written by leading economists and experts.

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Assessment Paper

Mary Hilderbrand, School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, carefully covers the broad and extremely complex topic of Governance and Institutions assessing various targets for the post-2015 agenda in this assessment paper. While she acknowledges the value of better governance, she concludes that there is limited evidence that setting targets actually leads to this outcome. Instead, much resources are wasted, with mere formal achievement of goals rather than real improvements. Hilderbrand suggests that one of the Open Working Group targets is promising - to provide universal birth registration, since it is clear, easily measured, specific and is likely to be indicative of well-functioning national institutions.

Whereas there is broad agreement that “good governance” (however that is defined) is preferable to poor governance, there is considerable disagreement over whether establishing specific goals and targets for governance is wise and will lead to meaningful improvements in governance."

- Mary Hilderbrand

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Perspective Paper

Aart Kraay, Lead Economist in the Development Research Group at the World Bank, disagrees with the assessment paper - instead stating that governance targets are a worthy inclusion in the post-2015 agenda. Kraay provides an interesting parallel with setting a target to eradicate extreme poverty in the Millennium Development Goals, which at the time it was set, faced similar conceptual, measurement and causality issues as governance targets today, but has since proved to be the most visible and unifying goal in development. He suggests that setting governance targets could generate a similar effect.

While it surely also had conceptual and measurement flaws, this headline MDG has been a highly visible "flagship" for all of the MDGs and has played an important role in setting the development agenda and challenging aid donors and recipients to work together towards the achievement of this goal. In my view a governance SDG could serve the same purpose, providing renewed emphasis on the importance of good governance, both as intrisically desirable and as a means to achieving other development goals"

- Aart Kraay

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Perspective Paper

Matt Andrews, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, provides a stand-alone perspective paper that is broadly supportive of Hilderbrand's conclusions, specifically arguing that governance indicators are likely to prioritize form over actual performance. However, noting that governance indicators are likely to be included, Andrews suggests not enforcing the same targets globally but rather allowing governments to choose a set of process and outcomes suited to their individual circumstances.

...there is no simple way of including governance into the post-2015 goals. I assume that the default condition will be to use existing indicators like the Worldwide Governance Indicators or the World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment statistics (CPIAs). I believe this default option will generate more harm than good—reinforcing a global agenda full of gaps and producing governments that look better than they are."

- Matt Andrews

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Viewpoint Paper

Martin Edwards, Director Center for UN and Global Governance Studies at Seton Hall University, emphasizes the value of using 'data dashboards' which focus not on a single measure, but enable assessment of countries across multiple measurements. This helps in providing accessible information relating to performance and progress, focusing attention on opportunities for improvement.

...a benchmark can tell us if countries are doing better or worse than their peer group, and by how much in terms of standard deviations. Given the nature of the governance data challenges, these seem like an ideal strategy for communicating how well a country is progressing."

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Viewpoint Paper

Nicola Crosta, of the Epic Foundation, welcomes the ambitions of the proposed development goals, and goes on to argue that the key to a truly transformative development agenda is the 'governance-inequality nexus'. In particular he emphasizes the importance of ensuring that policies, targets and investments recognize the inter-relationship and are mutually reinforcing, supporting inclusive societies and economic growth. 

...no institutional and governance setting can be considered effective, accountable or inclusive if it doesn’t address inequality, if it doesn’t lead to development whose benefits are broadly shared."

Read The Viewpoint Paper
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The Post-2015 Consensus project brings together 60 teams of economists with NGOs, international agencies and businesses to identify the targets with the greatest benefit-to-cost ratio for the UN's post-2015 development goals