How ‘good’ is good governance?

Goal 16 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for all actors ‘to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.’ This goal is based on the concept of good governance broadly defined as transparent, accountable, inclusive and responsive public institutions.

Ultimately, good governance is an ideal which promotes greater citizen empowerment in all aspects of public decision-making. However, this goal faces some fundamental barriers due to the tension between what the idea seeks to achieve and the realities of global governance.

 These barriers are the structural power of the state in global cooperation, the different interpretations of good governance in the post-2015 agenda, and the extent to which the SDGs can promote good governance in political development.

The first barrier relates to the power of the state in global cooperation. During the eighth Open Working Group consultation on the Sustainable Development Agenda in 2014, a session was held on the topic of ‘Conflict Prevention, Post-Conflict Peace-building and the Promotion of Durable Peace, Rule of Law and Governance.’  

In this session, Egypt, Syria, Moldova and Guinea explicitly highlighted the importance of ‘state sovereignty’, ‘non-interference’ and a state’s right to ‘self-determination’ according to its own social and cultural norms.

These statements implicitly reflect the criticisms that good governance is an idea being used to impose a more politically integrated world order and that the state is entitled to the basic rights of determining its own governance structures. The interventions presented by these four states demonstrate that despite the increasing participation of non-state actors in global cooperation, the rights of the state in global cooperation still has substantial influence and may impact on the effectiveness of Goal 16.

Another barrier centres on the different interpretations of good governance in the post-2015 agenda.  In the UN Secretary-General Synthesis report, global governance is referred to as a ‘transformative shift’, one of the six essential elements of the post-2015 agenda (Justice) and one of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In addition, there are at least three varying interpretations of good governance within Goal 16. In Goal 16, good governance is defined within the context of justice and rule of law, as the protection of public financial resources (16.4) and as a means to achieve other development goals (16a, 16b).

These definitions are complementary but better coherence is important because the concept of good governance in the post-2015 agenda extends to state as well as non-state actors. Good governance means different things within different contexts.  It can be building a more effective civil service, rule of law, reducing corruption within a country’s political system or better accountability in aid implementation.

In seeking to define more concisely what good governance is, there is a risk, however, of narrowing its definition too much. This limits its applicability across different contexts. On the other hand, having a broad definition also poses the risk of having little impact because it is difficult to make a comparative analysis across different contexts.

The third barrier relates to evaluating the extent to which good governance can be implemented in political institutions at the national level. Political development is primarily endogenous, varies within contexts, is difficult to place within time scales and requires the effective negotiation of power between different groups at the domestic level.  How can an external policy arrangement such as the post-2015 agenda make a ‘meaningful’ and ‘transformative’ contribution towards this goal?

By Marion A. Osieyo,  part of the action/2015 youth network.


For more information on the action/2015 campaign and youth click  here. The action/2015 Youth Panel is  co-facilitated by British Youth Council,  BOND, Islamic Relief,  Progressio and Restless Development and  Y Care International.


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How ‘good’ is good governance?

by wearerestless Reading time: 2 min