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Self- Reporting on Sustainable Development Goal 16 by Governments: A Big Farce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Laila El Baradei
November 19, 2019

Ask an offender to confess in public, and what do you get? The Voluntary National Reports (VNRs) for the Sustainable Development Goal 16. The poor progress on the implementation of SDG 16 as reported globally is a worrisome problem. However, what is really more troublesome is how individual countries get to report in their so-called VNRs or Voluntary National Reports.  Although the VNRs are intended to be country-led and country-driven, the implicit understanding is that they should be candid and objective in revealing both achievements and challenges. But is that really the case? 

Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were ratified by 193 world governments in 2015 amid optimism that nations will be able to realize a lot of positive achievements before the agreed deadline of 2030. For each of the 17 goals, there are agreed-upon targets and indicators. Global progress is measured and monitored by the United Nations Statistics Unit and reported on the UN SDG’s Knowledge platform. There is no legal commitment from countries to follow the goals. Rather, they represent a normative framework for realizing global sustainable development. The 17 SDGs are considered an improvement over the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in that there is greater international awareness about their presence and that countries have a greater commitment to the goals. Countries are also adopting a new approach that emphasizes the joint responsibility for achievement from developed and developing countries alike, and from governments, the private sector and civil society.

Some positive achievements have been realized on many of the 17 goals, but the picture is not at all promising when it comes to SDG 16. This goal is concerned with promoting peace, access to justice and the establishment of, “Effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels,” as mentioned on the UN SDG Knowledge Platform. All the adjectives mentioned in describing the aspired-to institutions are key to the work of public administrators. Effective, Accountable and Inclusive are how governments like to think about themselves, describe themselves to citizens and choose to envision their progress into the future.

Global progress on the achievement of SDG 16, as reported by the UN Statistics Unit, is somewhat gloomy. In 2018, the UN reported that armed conflict on the global level is continuing, progress on rule of law is uneven, access to data is slow and human rights organizations on the national level are not doing well. 

A quick look at VNRs prepared by a number of developing countries in 2018 and 2019 revealed inconsistency in reporting on SDG 16, plus omissions and ambiguities. Each country follows a different format and is selective in how it reports and what it reports on. In general, the majority of reports omitted mentioning anything that has to do with conflict-related deaths, un-sentenced detainees, victims of violence, satisfaction with public services, verified cases of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and other indicators clearly mentioned in the agreed-upon indicators for assessing progress on SDG 16 targets.

The countries are listed in alphabetical order.

  • Burkina Faso focused on how budget allocations were increased for the police and armed forces and how the country established national councils for Social Dialogue and Reconciliation.
  • Cambodia focused on how there is a need for better data monitoring and evaluation and how it will improve outreach to civil society and citizens for more meaningful engagement.
  • Congo mentioned figures for how the target for the proportion of populations who suffered from various forms of violence was 0.007% higher in 2015 than the target for 2030.
  • Egypt mentioned only one figure for SDG 16, which related to the perception of corruption, because it showed a slight improvement from the year before. The rest of the reporting was mostly done in a narrative form and the choice of words was very ambiguous.
  • Kuwait’s report talked about how the country’s leaders are committed to a participatory approach over the short, medium and long term.
  • South Africa’s report mentioned that violence against women and discrimination continue to be major challenges, but no figures were listed.

If we want to check real progress, or lack thereof, there are multiple proxy measures that can be utilized based on data collected and published by a number of international and civil society organizations. These include the World Bank Good Governance Indicators, Transparency International, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and World Justice Project, in addition to a plethora of local civil society organizations operating on the ground in different countries worldwide.

I think that what governments are allowed to do in their VNRs when reporting on SDG 16 is a big farce. How can you expect government officials to candidly report on corruption, violence and injustices that they themselves may have contributed to, or at the very least failed to properly combat and regulate? The United Nations needs to do a better job in coordinating with civil society organizations and relying on them more to carry a more objective and candid reporting on the implementation of SDG 16 in different countries. It cannot be otherwise.

Author: Laila El Baradei is a Professor of Public Administration at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, The American University in Cairo, Egypt. Currently she is directing the ‘Public Policy Hub’ project with the purpose of building the capacity of young graduate students and alumni in conducting evidence-based policy research and in effectively communicating finding to stakeholders in a creative manner; hence the motto of the project is: “Where Rigor Meets Creativity.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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