Good Governance, the SDGs and Caribbean SIDS

Alicia Nicholls

Caribbean countries joined fellow United Nations Member countries in September 2015 in endorsing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets which reflect the ambitions and aspirations for the 2030 global Agenda for Development. Good governance (SDG 16) is a standalone goal under the post-2015 global development agenda, but is considered an “enabler” goal, as enhancing institutional structures and governance can assist in the implementation and monitoring of progress towards achieving the other SDGs.

Commonwealth Caribbean countries take pride in their British-inherited Westminster/Whitehall systems of government, political stability and smooth transitions of power. However, governance reform has been a consistent feature of the political discourse across the region and it is useful to consider what role can good governance play in Caribbean small island developing states’ (SIDS) achievement of the post 2015 global development agenda.

The relationship between good governance and development is one which has dominated the development literature; a central debate in the academic literature is whether good governance is a prerequisite/enabler for, or consequence of, development. In July 2012, UN Member States unequivocally agreed pursuant to UN General Assembly Resolution 66/228 of July 2012 that good governance and rule of law are essential for sustainable development.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) defines good governance as “the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented)”. UNESCAP goes on to state that good governance “is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law”. Besides good governance, the development literature has identified two other components of governance: equitable and effective governance.

SDG -16 (Good governance and rule of law)

The UN High Level Panel of Eminent Persons opined that good governance should be a standalone goal as opposed to integrated into the other goals. This is enshrined in SDG16 which is 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”. SDG 16 therefore includes not just good governance but the rule of law.

SDG16’s 12 targets are broad based, ranging from the reduction of violence and an end to human trafficking, promoting the rule of law, reducing illicit financial and arms flows, among other things. Those specific to governance are to substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms, develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels, ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels, and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance, provide legal identity for all, ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements, strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation and promoting and enforcing non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development.

Governance in the Caribbean Region

With few exceptions in history, we in the Commonwealth Caribbean have had peaceful transitions of power and are generally societies anchored by respect for the rule of law. Our constitutions contain bills of rights which enshrine important rights and freedoms for our citizenry, with limitations. Notwithstanding this, there are concerns about some aspects of our systems, particularly in regards to transparency, accountability, government responsiveness and citizen engagement. Moreover, many wonder how democratic are our systems outside of the periodic opportunity to vote for a new government.

In regards to press freedom, Caribbean countries do quite well on the Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2015: Jamaica (9), Suriname (29), Eastern Caribbean (37), Trinidad & Tobago (41), Haiti (53). Barbados was not included. In contrast, of the few Caribbean countries included in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, none is included in the top 50. Cuba is ranked 52, Jamaica (69), Trinidad & Tobago (72), Suriname (88), Dominican Republic (103), Guyana (119), Haiti (158). This trails behind other SIDS like Cape Verde and Seychelles (40), Mauritius (45) and Sao Tome e Principle (66). Barbados ranked 17 in 2014 but was not included in the 2015 index.

Trinidad & Tobago was the first Commonwealth Caribbean country to implement freedom of information legislation in 1999. Antigua & Barbuda, Jamaica, Belize, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Dominican Republic, Guyana, the Bahamas, Cayman Islands all have FOI laws with various levels of efficacy. Barbados, however, remains one of the few Caribbean countries not to have Freedom of Information legislation and despite promises by the political directorate, does not have integrity legislation. On the Global Open Data Index Barbados ranked 109 out of a 122 countries. The availability of official government data and regular reporting and information sharing by government agencies still leave a lot to be desired.

While it may be tempting and politically expedient for our governments to pick and choose which rankings they wish to believe, several issues are symptomatic of governance failings in the region and of the feeling by our electorates that the quality of governance in our countries leaves a lot to be desired. These include low voter turnouts as seen in Jamaica’s recent general election and allegations of vote buying in Barbados’ elections in 2013. Across the Caribbean one can find examples of corruption scandals, accusations of political victimisation and media censorship, allegations of nepotism and of the awarding of questionable contracts. To fill the void, citizens are turning ever increasingly to social media to air their views and to expose alleged cases of corruption.

Governance for sustainable development

So how can improving the governance systems in the Caribbean assist our little countries in their progress towards achieving the SDGs? The achievement of many of the SDGs requires governance institutions which are strong, well-functioning and well-resourced. For example, well-managed and staffed Town Planning departments and the implementation and enforcement of town planning policies and regulations have a role to play making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG 11). Social welfare institutions are needed to reduce inequality within and among countries (SDG 10). Efficient water management policies and strategies are needed to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (SDG 6). Governance reforms must involve strengthening institutions to assist in the high quality provision of services such as health care and education for the most vulnerable groups in society, which in turn helps to reduce poverty and inequality.

Good governance, embodied by governance that is “participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law”, inspires confidence and participation in the system by the citizenry, civil society and the private sector. A more responsive and participatory governance structure allows for special interest populations such as the youth, the disabled and others greater voice.

Key to citizen participation is access to accurate and timely information. Access to information allows scrutiny of policies by citizens and helps them hold elected officials accountable. Improving communication channels between the government and citizenry allows for the flow of information and ideas between the government and governed, between the government, private sector and civil society, which are essential for policy creation, evaluation and modification, where necessary. Participatory government helps to re-orient policies towards the needs of the community, allowing for greater public support for policies.

In regards to SDG 8 (promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all), responsive governance institutions allow for ease of doing business which facilitates private sector activity. The private sector has been identified by the global community as a critical partner for the implementation of the SDGs, not just in terms of providing financing for development, but by aligning their policies to help meet these goals, including the adoption of more environmentally sustainable business, production and investment practices, providing more opportunities for women’s participation and engaging in greater involvement in the community. However, what businesses need is a facilitating and not prohibitive regulatory environment. What they also need is confidence that government decisions will be made based on objective criteria and not on patronage.

The way forward

Good governance is essential for helping Caribbean countries in their pursuit of the SDGs. Corruption is a cancer which results in weak and selective enforcement of laws, lack of accountability and transparency, all of which have negative implications for sustainable development. Large informal economies make it difficult for governments to mobilise domestic resources for financing for development, while distrust of government officials makes the private sector less willing to invest or engage in public-private partnerships. These are issues which Caribbean countries must tackle in their pursuit of the SDGs.

Another issue will be measuring progress made towards achievement of SDG16’s targets. In the Caribbean official data tends to be scarce. This is evidenced by the frequent absence of some Caribbean countries from international indices due to lack of data. Addressing these data shortages will be needed for monitoring.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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