Roosevelt House Faculty Forum Posted on Thursday, May 30, 2013

In Fight Over New Global Development Goals, Round One Goes to “Democracy” (Sort of)

Rob Jenkins Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center

It’s official: democracy is now a universal goal that all nations must meet. Well, not exactly. But if you read between the lines of a United Nations report due out on Friday, something very much like democracy is being proposed as a central objective of the world’s future development agenda. If the report’s recommendations are adopted by governments, it will mark a watershed in how the world conceives of development. We will have fully embraced Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s insight that development is the process of expanding human freedom. Ironically, nothing less than a global advocacy campaign that involves citizens in many non-democratic countries will persuade world leaders to agree that empowering people to hold their governments accountable should be a shared aspiration, against which all countries’ performance will be assessed.

The report, entitled “A New Global Partnership,” has been produced by a “High-Level Panel” co-chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It was appointed last July by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to suggest what should replace the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which “expire” in 2015. Progress has been made on some MDGs. The proportion of the world’s people living in “extreme poverty” was halved five years ahead of schedule. But failures heavily outnumber successes. “Universal access to reproductive health” is nowhere in sight.  In much of Africa, key indicators are trending in the wrong direction.

Undaunted, the UN panel has identified a dozen new goals. Coming in at number ten is “Ensure good governance.” As citizens of any democracy can attest, the governance it produces is often far from good. But in international development circles, good governance is the euphemism of choice for the political system that dare not speak its name. Good governance, says the report, consists of “accountable institutions” that promote “public participation,” uphold the “rule of law,” and guarantee “freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media.”

While stressing the need for people to enjoy “political choice,” the report falls short of recognizing people’s right to elect their political representatives. Without this, democracy cannot really be said to exist. But almost all of the other ingredients are there, including an “independent” judiciary that “respects due process protections” – something citizens in many nominally democratic countries might prefer over the privilege of occasionally casting a ballot. If sacrificing the D-word was the cost of building consensus for a global goal incorporating the key components of an “open society,” it was a price worth paying. More than four decades ago, fed up with the baggage democracy seemed to lug into every discussion it entered, Yale political scientist Robert Dahl proposed using the term polyarchy instead. It never quite caught on, but the UN panel would surely have sympathized with Dahl’s predicament.

The report’s inclusion of good governance among the world’s development goals may strike even committed democrats as odd. Is not development – or at least the “human development” approach embraced by the UN – about fighting disease, ensuring adequate nutrition, and providing children an education? Yes. And, like the MDGs, the framework proposed by the panel covers these and other urgent necessities. But there is a growing recognition that people’s ability to participate in the governance of their societies is itself a part of human well-being. It is intrinsic to development, on top of whatever instrumental benefits it might generate by helping to achieve other goals.

World leaders have two years to determine what the “post-2015 development agenda” will look like. They could easily reject the panel’s proposal to adopt a global goal on democratic-like governance. If so, it will largely be because governments dislike being held accountable for how accountable they are. But such a refusal would also likely be justified on “technical” grounds. Progress in realizing democracy is often viewed as unsusceptible to the kinds of “objective” measurements used to monitor governments’ performance on goals such as increasing the proportion of children immunized against measles. Improvements in governance can for the most part only be tracked by “perception-based” measures, such as public-opinion surveys and expert assessments of institutional quality.

Diplomats are trained to reject such metrics as “subjective” and therefore ill-suited to international comparison.  Yet, rigorous governance metrics have been devised by institutions like the World Bank, whose methodologies government have over the years grudgingly learned to accept. They are built around datasets maintained by academic institutes, bar associations, business information providers, and polling organizations – a group diverse enough to dampen claims of bias. These are all players in what the UN report calls the basis for a “data revolution” – the increasing availability of quantifiable information from a dizzying array of sources. Were governments willing to embrace rather than spurn this revolution, the world community could properly measure country performance on such crucial governance objectives as reducing corruption and respecting press freedom.

Round one in what is sure to be a drawn out fight over democracy’s place in development has been won – sort of. But between now and 2015, the pressure to backtrack will be intense. People everywhere must demand that their political leaders both affirm democratic governance as a global goal and agree to have their efforts to realize it meaningfully measured. Round two starts now.


Rob Jenkins is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a Roosevelt House Faculty Associate. He is the author, most recently, of Peacebuilding: From Concept to Commission (Routledge, 2013). His research interests and publications are outlined at

Rob Jenkins is Professor of Political Science, Hunter College & The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His latest book, Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (coauthored with James Manor), was published in the UK this month by Hurst, and (as of March 2017) will be available in North America from Oxford University Press.