January 21, 2015 / 8:45 PM / 3 years ago

How can U.N. measure if better governance programs work?

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Anti-corruption and governance programs sound like a good way to help countries develop, but measuring their impact on ending extreme poverty remains elusive, a new study has found.

Global leaders are considering including governance as one of the United Nations' new set of development goals, which will have a significant influence on how roughly $2.5 trillion in development aid is spent over the next 15 years.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under discussion at UN meetings in New York this week are due to take effect in 2016. The United Kingdom is a big supporter of a governance goal, and in a UN survey of more than seven million people, an honest and responsive government was among their top priorities.

But a study by Mary Hilderbrand, economics professor at Texas A&M University, released this week by the Copenhagen Consensus think tank casts some doubt on whether a development goal focusing on transparency, responsive government and reducing corruption will be effective.

There have been large investments in global governance over the last 20 years and yet the results are disappointing, she said. For example, one study of 80 countries that had World Bank governance programs found that governance improved in 39 percent of the countries and worsened in 25 percent. These results were no different than in countries without programs.

While the overall goal is laudable, finding ways to implement it in an effective and measurable manner is far more difficult, she said, adding it makes her leary of governance targets.

“Governance because it involves political, social and economic systems is very complex, and it is hard to know what is happening below the surface. It is too easy for governments to tick the boxes through institutional reforms without fundamentally changing anything,” Hilderbrand said in a telephone interview.

ID CARDS WORK

The one governance target that does make sense is providing a legal identity for all citizens, including birth registration, because it is concrete and brings a range of benefits, she said.

Such programs help build the capacity of governments to run efficient systems. Cards guarantee citizens access to public services and the right to vote, which in turn increases government accountability and reduces poverty.

Hilderbrand estimates the benefits would at least equal the cost of every dollar invested. In contrast, the cost-benefits of other proposed governance targets, such as “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms” are uncertain partly because they are so general, she said.

Aart Kraay, a World Bank economist who reviewed Hilderbrand’s paper, said that while there may be little hard evidence of a causal link between good governance and better development, that does not mean such "aspirational" goals should be abandoned.

Transparency International, the leading global anti-corruption advocacy group, agreed.

“When there are higher levels of bribery, there is more poverty, so we know it has to be part of the SDGs,” said Craig Fagan, TI’s head of global policy.

The United Nations General Assembly plans to complete its work on the new development goals, which currently number 17 plus 169 targets for implementing them, by July for final adoption by world leaders in September.

Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Lisa Anderson

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