How can we implement Sustainable Development Goal 16 on institutions?

Sustainable Development Goal 16

commits the global community to work together toPromote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Ambitious and visionary, like all the SDGs, Goal 16 has the potential to either catalyze profound social transformation, or to remain merely empty rhetoric—illusory words on paper without substance or relevance to the lives we lead.

Transformative or illusory? What can make the difference? And why does it matter?


Much of the discussion about Goal 16 is currently focused on measurement. Critics argue that “good governance,” as defined by the 10+ targets, is either conceptually impossible to measure or that relevant data does not exist. Supporters recognize the profound data and measurement difficulties, but believe that a global goal will generate demand for the relevant data—helping make visible corruption and exclusion and injustice and violence that has long hid in the shadows. I fall into the latter camp. The World Justice Project, Global Integrity, the Corruption Perceptions Index, and my own research on social and economic rights measurement, among many other initiatives, have laid a strong groundwork for useful metrics, notwithstanding the complexities.

Measurement is indeed a significant issue (for all the SDGs, not just this one) and will require some deep thinking to get right. But if the international community makes a real financing commitment to gather new, disaggregated data and strengthen national statistical capacities, and if we build on the research revolution that has unfolded over the past 15 years in this field, it is technically feasible and politically possible to define conceptually sound, bellwether metrics to track progress and retrogression over time.

Implementing principles

Measurement is tough, but the real challenges for Goal 16 appear when we start talking about implementation. Implementation presents a particular challenge for Goal 16. Governments are often falling short on peace, justice, accountability, and inclusion because they are corrupt, unaccountable, autocratic, violent, and exclusionary. And those other well-intentioned leaders whose countries are failing their citizens lack the bureaucratic capacity to do better (there’s a will, but no way). In other words, the countries and sub-national provinces with the farthest to go are often ruled by governments who are not exactly good candidates for “implementing partners.”

With this core political conundrum in mind, we should recognize that a serious commitment to implementing Goal 16 will need to rest on five prongs:

  1. Fostering bottom-up empowerment;
  2. Supporting homegrown institutions and reformers;
  3. Facilitating selective decentralization;
  4. Harnessing the power of technology; and
  5. Following through on universality.

Each of these five principles has its own complex compelling logic, but taken together they represent an agenda that favors building inclusionary processes and strengthening grassroots advocates and organizations over applying technocratic quick-fixes.

Since the end of World War II, top-down governance reform efforts that aim to improve institutions and legal systems in developing countries by rewriting laws and importing best practice models from abroad have received substantial funding from international donors, but these initiatives generally fail dismally. Institutions imposed from outside are unsustainable if not grounded in and supported by local practices and expectations. At the same time, even the best laws on the books will not translate into social inclusion, expanded rights, and better governance for citizens without local legal and political empowerment.

Citizens collectively need effective avenues to hold elected officials accountable. And individuals, especially the most vulnerable, need advocates and self-efficacy in order to genuinely realize their rights and access justice. Careful decentralization and the creative use of new technologies can also help by bringing decision-makers closer to impacted communities, increasing access to information, and making it easier for people to coordinate collective action.

The imperative of Goal 16 is universal. From the streets and prisons of Ferguson and Guantanamo, to the factories of Bangladesh and Thailand, to the oil fields of Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, governments worldwide have far to go in making Goal 16 a reality.

Why Goal 16 matters

Without good governance, the other efforts to improve human well-being outlined in the other 16 SDGs will be impossible to realize. Over the course of human history, countries with inclusive and accountable governments and fair and predictable legal systems have delivered infinitely more on the promise of development as freedom than have technocratic totalitarian states that tried to trade freedoms for future prosperity.

And it’s not just a question of aggregate, long-term progress. Indeed, social progress taken in aggregate does not necessarily mean inclusive and sustainable development. Those with the least voice are the most likely to be left out and left behind by growth-enhancing policies that may inadvertently exacerbate poverty and hurt the most vulnerable. Without specific attention to political and legal inclusion, it will be impossible to realize the aspirations of the SDGs to end the tyranny of poverty and protect our planet for future generations. Goal 16 is the key to ensuring that progress and prosperity are widely shared, and that those most in need can claim and exercise their rights as global citizens.

Taken together, justice, rule of law, and accountable and inclusive institutions are the linchpin of shared social progress and our ability to realize human flourishing. The success of all the SDGs rests on ensuring that we unlock the full potential of Goal 16 to catalyze social transformation.