Transparency is Key for Sustainable Growth, Global Panel Says


Open and accountable government is key to successful development, according to a report by a United Nations (UN) panel released May 30. The report, titled A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, was produced by a panel of global dignitaries at the request of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The report's emphasis on transparency represents the growing consensus among world leaders in favor of open government and could bolster support for transparency within the U.S.

The report recommends a framework for future progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Adopted by UN members in the 2000 Millennium Declaration, the MDGs set global development targets for the year 2015 on topics such as poverty, health, and environmental sustainability. With 2015 now approaching, the leaders recommend setting a new batch of 15-year goals, incorporating lessons learned from the first MDGs and responding to recent trends.

One major change that the panel recommends is to recognize the centrality of effective open government in tackling challenges such as reducing poverty and preventing child deaths. "People the world over expect their governments to be honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs," the report notes. "This is a universal agenda, for all countries."

Goals for Global Development

The original Millennium Development Goals consisted of eight goals with 21 specific targets. For instance, the targets included reducing the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters and reducing the percentage of people without safe water and sanitation by half. Progress on the targets is monitored for each country, as well as globally.

In 2012, a High-level Panel was established to advise on a development framework beyond 2015. The panel included 27 members, co-chaired by the heads of government of Indonesia, Liberia, and the United Kingdom. The sole American panelist was John Podesta, chair of the Center for American Progress, previously chief of staff to President Clinton and co-chair of President Obama's transition team. The panel was tasked with consulting with stakeholders, in addition to drawing on their own perspectives, in preparing the recommendations.

The report noted "a deep respect for the Millennium Development Goals," commenting that the years since their adoption "have seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history" and attributing this "unprecedented progress" in part to the MDGs. Although not all the targets have yet been achieved, the panel stated that the goals "have shown their value in focusing global efforts."

The panel concluded that "a new development agenda should carry forward the spirit of the Millennium Declaration and the best of the MDGs." The new agenda, though, should go further in promoting sustainable development, according to the report, with increased emphasis on inclusion, peace, good governance, job creation, and better integrating the different aspects of sustainable development. The original goals fell short, the panel asserts, by not including "the importance to development of … open and accountable government."

For a future agenda, the panel proposes 12 goals with 54 targets. The report notes that "this list is illustrative rather than prescriptive." Nonetheless, the panel's proposals will likely be a starting point for future discussions. If the world commits to the goals in the report, the panel remarks, "we can imagine a world in 2030 that is more equal, more prosperous, more peaceful and more just than that of today." "A world," the panel adds, "where transparent and representative governments are in charge."

Emphasis on Transparency

The importance of transparency has been increasingly recognized over the course of the MDG process. The Millennium Declaration in 2000 resolved to ensure "the right of the public to have access to information," but otherwise made few statements about transparency. By 2010, the General Assembly identified the value of "transparent and accountable systems of governance" as a lesson learned and stressed the importance of "improved transparency and accountability" to ensuring that development aid is used effectively. But the new report is remarkable in the extent of its embrace of open government.

Transparency takes pride of place in the report, with the panel proposing that one of the 12 goals be to "ensure good governance and effective institutions." The panel specifically recommends targets to "guarantee the public's right to information and access to government data," "increase public participation in political processes and civic engagement at all levels," and "reduce bribery and corruption and ensure officials can be held accountable." In particular, the panel suggests that ensuring access to public information should be a candidate for a "global minimum standard."

The report also highlights the importance of information about government finances. "We need a transparency revolution," the panel contends, "so citizens can see exactly where and how taxes, aid and revenues from extractive industries are spent."

The panel makes clear that transparency is instrumental to achieving the aims of development, such as creating jobs and improving education. "We are calling for a fundamental shift – to recognize peace and good governance as a core element of wellbeing, not an optional extra." Furthermore, the report calls for the targets themselves to be monitored in greater detail and for open access to those data.

Additionally, the report denotes the need for corporate responsibility, urging businesses to be "transparent about the financial, social and environmental impact of their activities" and encouraging greater transparency to reduce tax evasion.

Moving Forward

In September, the UN will convene a major meeting to discuss the MDGs and a potential future agenda. At that meeting, Secretary-General Ban will present his own report, drawing on the panel's recommendations. As the report states, "These discussions and processes could culminate in a summit meeting in 2015 for member states to agree the new goals and to mobilize global action so that the new agenda can become a reality from January 2016."

But much could change before world governments reach an agreement on a final agenda – if any agreement is reached at all. Supporters of transparency will need to continue to establish the importance of openness and accountability. For instance, the Open Society Foundations have already commented that the commitment to open government in the panel's report "should be included in whatever eventually emerges from the process."

It is not yet clear what impact such an agenda might have on the U.S. domestically, but the panel's embrace of transparency is undoubtedly a positive step. Together with other recent global events, such as the UN Human Rights Committee's 2011 recognition of freedom of information as a human right and the founding and growth of the international Open Government Partnership (OGP), the report echoes growing consensus around the world in favor of open government. The Obama administration should ensure that the U.S. remains at the forefront of the movement for transparency, not only in rhetoric but in achievement. Under the OGP, the U.S. is due to deliver a new set of transparency pledges this fall; adopting an ambitious plan could demonstrate the seriousness of the Obama administration's commitment to being an open government innovator.

The report's clear linkage of transparency and development should give pause to politicians who would delay open government improvements or cut transparency investments because of the federal government's fiscal challenges. Transparency measures are a vital component of effective job creation efforts – not a distraction therefrom or a hindrance thereto.

This report and the agenda it lays out may impact U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. As the world's largest donor of development aid, the U.S. has an interest in ensuring that its investments are as effective as possible in improving people's lives. Increasing the transparency of both donors and recipients of aid should further deter waste, fraud, or corruption and enable aid to be better targeted to do the most good.

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