How well do African nations measure up on governance?
Government ministers gathered in New York for the UN High-level Political Forum this month to review the progress made by countries toward achieving some of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
These include the governance-focused SDG 16, which aims to promote the benefits of peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and accountable institutions at every level. This goal includes 12 targets to be achieved by 2030, with progress toward them measured against 23 indicators.
Of the 51 countries that volunteered to report on their progress during the forum, which ran from July 9-18, more than a third (18) were from Africa, which was the largest-ever contingent from the continent. According to a new study by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), African countries are among the most innovative and committed in measuring and reporting on governance goals. Their efforts could serve as a model for others to follow.
This finding might seem counterintuitive, given Africa’s reputation as a region beset by significant governance challenges, often exacerbated by crises. Yet, it will come as no surprise to those who recall the early stages of drafting the SDGs, in 2014. African governments played a pivotal role in advocating the adoption of a standalone SDG 16, with dedicated targets and indicators, in contrast to some more-powerful UN member states that wanted to relegate issues of governance and peace to the preamble of the new global development agenda.
The SAIIA/UNDP study, which surveyed government officials and non-government actors in 38 African countries, highlights three main ways in which the continent is becoming a world leader in measuring progress on governance.
Firstly, Africa is demonstrating that the 12 targets comprising SDG 16 are measurable, and that national statistical offices (NSOs) can, for example, produce good data on access to justice, representation in public institutions, and political participation. Since 2012, in fact, African statisticians have been testing a pilot approach to institutionalizing the production of official national survey data on governance, peace and security. Today, nearly one-half of African NSOs use a survey module that enables countries to report — in one go and at minimal cost — on 11 of the 23 indicators under SDG 16.
The success of this initiative reflects the strong preference of African policymakers for national statistics based on citizens’ experiences, rather than international governance indicators that reflect “expert” views.
Data on governance, like any other official statistics, are a public resource and should be accessible to all. Otherwise, the true scale of violence, exclusion and discrimination will remain hidden.
Reinforcing “data sovereignty” of nations in the new domains of governance and peace statistics will require governments to spend more on generating such data, and NSOs to establish dedicated teams with relevant expertise. Yet only 16 percent of government respondents to the SAIIA/UNDP survey said that their countries had allocated funding specifically for the production of SDG 16 statistics.
Secondly, African governments are increasingly trying to “localize” SDG 16, which is something the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls on countries everywhere to do. About 60 percent of survey respondents indicated that their nations had tailored the goal’s global targets and indicators to the national context in consultation with civil-society leaders, researchers and government actors.
Cameroon’s government, for example, has invited civil society groups to “translate” SDG 16’s global indicators into simplified local statistics, in close cooperation with the NSO. The grassroots assessment of progress against these indicators is intended to complement the government-led reporting mechanism.
Finally, some African “SDG 16 champions” are making its goals central to national planning, budgeting and reporting. In Kenya, for instance, all public-sector officials in SDG 16-related ministries, departments and agencies are obliged to sign performance contracts with the central government, in which they identify SDG 16 targets and indicators relevant to their mandate and explain how these are being integrated into policy and development plans. Ghana and Benin, meanwhile, emphasize budget spending that has a high SDG 16 impact, and Ghana’s government also publicly discloses how closely its financial priorities are aligned with its stated commitments under this goal.
Moreover, several countries have found innovative ways to ensure that governments use new national SDG 16 data in their day-to-day decision-making. The Liberia Peacebuilding Office trains potential users of governance statistics to analyze and apply such information in their work, while Uganda employs statisticians in its justice and law-enforcement agencies to help create a “data culture” among planners and policymakers.
However, African countries still need to improve public access to SDG 16 data and indicators, so that citizens can better hold their governments to account. Only one-quarter of survey respondents said that these statistics were easily accessible to the public, and less than one-third (32 percent) of non-government respondents felt that their governments are committed to making SDG 16 data readily available.
Data on governance, like any other official statistics, are a public resource and should be accessible to all. Otherwise, the true scale of violence, exclusion and discrimination will remain hidden, and the potential of carefully collected information to improve the lives of ordinary citizens — in Africa and elsewhere — will not be fully realized.
• Marie Laberge works with the United Nations Development Programme to support national efforts to measure and monitor governance, peace and security.