Three UN workers in Sudan, Africa. United Nations Photo/Flickr

Sustainable Governance Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals, approved at the UN this week, have the potential to transform the lives of billions of people. But they will succeed only if governments have the wherewithal to create and implement the necessary policies.

NEW YORK – To those who claim that conventional politics does not bring change, the Millennium Development Goals, adopted here in New York by the United Nations 15 years ago, are a powerful riposte. Not everything contained in the MDGs has been achieved, and no fragile country will completely achieve any of the goals by the time they expire at the end of this year. But huge progress was made: hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, maternal mortality has been reduced by almost half, and millions more children are now in school.

So, as the world signs up this week to the MDGs’ successor framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it should do so with considerable confidence. The challenge, however, is to make global goal-setting still more effective, in part by learning the lessons of the last 15 years.

My foundation – the Africa Governance Initiative, now in eight countries – puts improved systems of delivery and implementation at the heart of the change needed to reduce poverty and promote development. As I know well, the toughest thing about government – even in the developed world – is getting things done. Political leaders run for office as great campaigners; once in power, however, they swiftly discover that they need to become great CEOs if their policies are to be carried out.

In the developing world, where leaders struggle with a vast array of challenges, such skills are all the more important. Necessary reforms are often radical, unpopular, and technically complex. Leaders must confront outmoded ways of working; endless hours of protocol (the sign of a poor government is a happy protocol office); and a dearth of sound advice on problems that developing countries frequently face, from financing infrastructure to attracting global investment.

In other words, a concerted effort to strengthen government capacity and efficiency would be an excellent complement to the SDGs. But it should be carried out with a practical eye.

First, we need to appreciate that there is a cost to multitasking. The SDGs comprise 17 goals and 169 targets – all of them admirable in their own right. But governments in developing countries must be allowed to prioritize them and focus on the rhythm of change that works best for them.

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In Sierra Leone, for example, the post-Ebola recovery plan emphasises energy, agriculture, and (not surprisingly) health. The international community should support the government in these areas, rather than pressing it to work on all 17 SDGs right from the start.

Second, simply having a well-formulated development agenda is not enough; presidents and prime ministers need a way to turn goals into plans and ensure that those plans stay on course. This operational focus is often strangely absent from the debate. As any soccer fan can appreciate, the ball will not hit the back of the net unless the team works to give it to the striker.

Consider Guinea, where the Africa Governance Initiative is working closely with the government’s major projects office. The effective oversight from that team is producing results like the construction of the Kaléta dam, which by the end of the year will supply 240 MWs of power to the national grid.

Third, the scale of the SDGs demands financing of around $11.5 trillion per year. To put that figure in perspective, Sub-Saharan Africa’s current total GDP is around $2 trillion. Clearly, we need a wider concept of the finance and policies required to support development.

Aid remains important; it can reach places that private finance on its own cannot. But the developed world has a responsibility that goes beyond giving aid: it needs to reduce barriers to trade, both in goods and services; to the diffusion of knowledge and innovation; and to migration.

The real key, however, is to expand the domestic resources available to governments in developing countries. Attracting investment to stimulate economic growth will create jobs and income, which in turn will increase tax revenues.

All of this will require new partnerships and more collaboration across borders. It will involve sharing ideas, forming alliances, and accepting that practicality should trump ideology. New thinking will be important, but the global marketplace already offers an abundance of ideas to tap.

Fortunately, unlike 15 years ago, technology – particularly mobile technology (which is now considered simply a personal technology, even in the developing world) – can revolutionize the delivery of services. This has already begun to happen; examples include Kenya’s mobile money service M-Pesa, and mHealth in West Africa, which showed its potential during the Ebola outbreak. These and other mobile technologies can be adapted to very specific purposes across very different communities.

Moreover, a remarkable feature of the 15 years of the MDGs has been the role that private philanthropy has played in complementing efforts by governments. This should encourage us to find the right way for governments and philanthropists to cooperate in bringing about transformative, not merely palliative, change.

The lesson of the past 15 years is that defeating world poverty is not a hopeless cause. In the years to come, the SDGs can move the world further toward success – especially if these new goals are helped by a rigorous effort to strengthen governments’ ability to achieve them.