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Copenhagen Consensus Center

Post-2015 Consensus: Governance and Institutions Perspective, Andrews

Perspective Paper


I start from a position of skepticism of the value of having post-2015 goals at all and even more of including governance in such a set. Global level statistics on the MDGs appear quite accurate and progress in some areas is used to support the argument for such global goals. However, there is great variation at the national level, with one study, for example, showing that about 50% of countries are on track to meet extreme poverty, gender, child mortality and water goals, but less than 30% are on track to meet hunger, maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS goals.

I draw several key lessons when considering this kind of evidence. First, higher growth countries did better in meeting MDG targets than lower growth countries, which could suggest that the development community should focus on fostering economic growth instead of promoting a new set of targets. MDG success is contextual, and deeply affected by a country’s social and economic situation. Secondly, progress has been greatest in areas where measured performance captures (mostly) logistical improvements. Building more schools and laying water pipes are largely technical exercises. Progress on sanitation issues, on the other hand, has arguably been slower, because the logistical component involves more complex political and social interactions.

A third lesson is that, because targets focus on parts of the development process that can be seen and quickly assessed and not on the harder to see (and to do) and longer to achieve parts, there are likely to be large gaps between form and function (where performance only looks better). Many of the best performing MDG countries now have many schools and high enrolment rates in schools, for instance, but also experience severe shortages of teachers and textbooks and major gaps between enrolment and achievement. There are also gaps within countries between rural and urban areas: the fourth lesson is that goals and targets can bias performance to easier concentrated urban areas, creating a gap between performance in these locations and the more distributed local, rural settings.

A final lesson is that targets encourage promises—of budgetary priorities in particular—that often do not lead to actual follow-through, creating an execution gap that is not easily closed.

All this suggests that indicators are not as effective as many might believe. We know, for instance, that governance indicators are very sensitive to factors that have nothing to do with governance and governance reform (like a country’s wealth or its growth rate). Governance indicators are also heavily influenced by signals of change and by logistical manifestations of change; for instance, composite indicators like the WGIs actually rise and fall on the basis of reform signals, which are often used to deflect attention from poor reform performance. The message is simply that targets and indicators don’t work terribly well when one is dealing with complex challenges.

Deep and lasting change occurs because of contextual pressures in specific countries, rather than global targets. China and India, for example, are developing without the aid of indicators or global targets; much like Western European nations, the United States, Japan and South Korea did.

If governance indicators must be included in the post-2015 agenda I would start by focusing on closing the gaps between meeting targets and actual achievement. I would allow choice in the governance agendas and targets, assessing progress with reforms in a set of key areas appropriate to a given country. However, this may only capture ‘process’ improvements, so there is also a need to include governance ends into the indicators, including public safety, electricity access, education and health care provision, employment and inflation rates, and the mobility of citizens. Governance is not really an end in itself; governance processes matter mostly because they influence the degree to which governments meet citizen needs.