The Road to Sustainable Development is Paved with Good Intentions

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Sustainable Development

September 26, 2015: New York City. Some 60,000 people from all over the world throng Central Park for the Global Citizen Festival. As Beyoncé takes the stage there is a buzz in the air – a sense of optimism for the future of the planet and its inhabitants. Across town at the United Nations, 163 nations were putting finishing touches on a groundbreaking framework for sustainable development – the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Eliminate poverty, hunger and gender inequality. Ensure access to quality health care, education, clean water, affordable energy, and decent work for all. Build sustainable cities, take action to address climate change and protect life on land and at sea. Leave no one behind!

This new framework of global goals recognized the complex, interdependent nature of these challenges – success or failure on any one goal can affect progress toward achieving the others. They recognized that governments cannot achieve this ambitious agenda alone. Many business and civil society leaders were united in their commitment to partner with governments to get the job done.

Good Governance, Rule of Law, and Anti-Corruption: Keys to Sustainable Development

Another key innovation was Goal 16, which firmly acknowledged that good governance, rule of law and strong, inclusive, and accountable institutions, are critical to achieving sustainable development in all its dimensions. This was a key U.S. negotiating objective, and hard fought. Convincing 193 nations to agree that good governance is key to sustainable development was no easy feat, and worthy of celebration.

Existing organizations launched new initiatives and partnerships to advance Goal 16 and measure progress toward achieving its 12 targets and 23 indicators. The Open Government Partnership emphasized Goal 16 in its work to encourage governments to engage civil society and improve transparent, accountable, and participatory governance across a growing membership of national and subnational governments.

In 2017, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a coalition of 39 UN member states, international organizations, global partnerships, civil society and the private sector, recognized that achieving the SDGs requires acceleration of action to achieve Goal 16, as well as related good governance targets embedded across the 17 Goals (collectively, “SDG 16+”). Pathfinders’ Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, issued in 2017 and updated in 2019, presents a call to action for transformative strategies and catalytic action to advance peace, justice and inclusion across the social, economic and environmental dimensions of the SDGs. By 2019, however, it was apparent that progress toward achieving the SDGs had stalled on many fronts.

Fast forward to 2020. The rise of right-wing populism and its skepticism of multilateral initiatives and global institutions, the politicization of anti-corruption efforts, the global COVID-19 pandemic and its disproportionate impacts on marginalized groups, the epidemic of racial inequality in the United States. Clearly, even with some advances in human progress, many people were, and still are, being left behind.

Anti-Corruption Re-Takes the Stage

January 18, 2021: With a new U.S. President came new hope of proactive American leadership to “build back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic, lead the global effort to combat climate change, address persistent inequality, and advance sustainable development. In June 2021, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum establishing the fight against corruption as a core U.S. National Security interest, and launching an interagency effort to develop a national strategy to combat corruption at home and abroad. Per the Memorandum:

“Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself. But by effectively preventing and countering corruption and demonstrating the advantages of transparent and accountable governance, we can secure a critical advantage for the United States and other democracies.”

The Biden Administration’s reassertion of leadership on anti-corruption coincided with the June 2-4 2021 Special Session of the General Assembly on Challenges and Measures to Prevent and Combat Corruption and Strengthen International Cooperation. In the ensuing Political Declaration of the Special Session, the member States of the United Nations committed to “step up our efforts to promote and effectively implement our anticorruption obligations and robust commitments under the international anticorruption architecture.”

The Declaration addresses whistleblower protection, by committing to “provide a safe and enabling environment to those who expose, report and fight corruption and, as appropriate, for their relatives and other persons close to them.” The Member States also committed to:

“[S]upport and protect against any unjustified treatment any person who identifies, detects or reports, in good faith and on reasonable grounds, corruption and related offences.”

To this end, the Declaration calls for enabling confidential complaint systems and programs to protect reporting persons, and to “criminalize obstruction of justice and to effectively protect victims, witnesses and justice and law enforcement officials from potential retaliation or intimidation, use of physical force or threats.”

Unfortunately, a month later in July, 2021, the U.N. High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, set up to review progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, missed an important opportunity to build on this momentum. Scant attention was paid to the central role of SDG 16 in achieving sustainable development, to the role of corruption in stymying progress on the SDGs, or to the need to reinforce protections and incentives for whistleblowers.

Within weeks, a government propped up for twenty years with hundreds of billions of dollars in international military and development assistance crumbles in the blink of an eye. There is little doubt that endemic corruption, including the diversion of international aid for personal gain, is among the factors contributing to the fragility and sudden delegitimization of the Ghani regime in Afghanistan.

It Takes a Village – and an Integrated Systems Approach

Building rule of law, combatting corruption, and protecting and incentivizing citizen informants, aka whistleblowers requires a combined strategy – cross-cutting efforts that both look to the justice system as a whole, as well as a focus on risks and protections and rewards for those who would call out improper conduct in individual sectors, themes and government functions. Fighting corruption and impunity is a multi-sector, whole-of-government and whole-of-society exercise. This means it needs attention at the system level – and in individual sectors. Broad good governance pronouncements and aspirations, like Goal 16, the Biden Administration’s Memorandum, and the Political Declaration of the U.N. Special Session on Anti-Corruption, are important steps in setting direction and building momentum – but are imperfect tools for mobilizing action in individual sectors. Action and advocacy are needed in individual sectors to ensure effective implementation of these broad, cross-cutting pronouncements. Supporting whistleblowers is one such important tool.

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