At last weekend’s summit on sustainable development in New York, world leaders set ambitious global goals to be achieved by 2030. In many ways, the goals—which reflect important progress in development policy and a global political commitment of significant proportions—are a major achievement. The summit marked the culmination of a challenging multi-year negotiation with an appropriately celebratory tone. Without discounting this landmark achievement and the arduous path that led to it though, it is clear that the real work begins now.
For the ABA and its Rule of Law Initiative, there are two particularly important innovations in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). First, in stark contrast to the Millennium Development Goals, which made no reference to governance as a factor in development, the SDGs include a goal—Goal 16—aimed at promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies. Goal 16 puts rule of law squarely on the development agenda, identifying a dozen targets that encompass specific objectives, such as ensuring legal identity for all, as well as broader ambitions, such as promoting the rule of law, ensuring equal access to justice for all, substantially reducing corruption, ensuring public access to information and protecting fundamental freedoms. Other goals also incorporate elements of good governance. Recognized as requisite to the realization of all other development goals, efficient, effective, fair and just governance is no longer an optional priority or an afterthought now.
A second important innovation is the universality of the goals. Reflecting an appreciation that there is work to be done on this agenda in both the developed and the developing world, the goals will apply to all states. At the ABA, which focuses the bulk of its resources on strengthening the legal system in the United States, we have long understood that the work of our global Rule of Law Initiative is in many ways a natural extension of our related work at home. There is much to be gained from connecting these efforts: resources and lessons to be shared, not to mention the solidarity and moral authority of a truly global movement.
Now that we have these landmark goals, what challenges lie ahead, and how can ABA ROLI and the rule of law development community help meet them? The most significant immediate challenge will be defining measurable indicators for tracking progress. A single quantifiable measure—especially for some of the broad governance targets—may prove elusive. Offered for public comment in mid-August, a first draft of Goal 16 indicators risked defining the agenda too narrowly. For example, it proposed measuring access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms by the number of verified cases of gross violations journalists, media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates suffer.
Developing appropriate indicators in this arena will not be easy. While a number of existing indicators can work for some Goal 16 elements, there is no comprehensive measure to be pulled off the shelf. Considerable effort and resources should thus be devoted to developing measures that will capture the complexity of this goal. ABA ROLI has been developing rule of law assessment methodologies for nearly two decades, and one thing we have learned is that while certain elements of good governance can be quantified, a truly accurate and useful measure must include qualitative analysis. While quantitative indicators provide useful benchmarks, a mechanism to compare countries and ability to readily track progress, qualitative measures provide context and understanding that numerical indicators struggle to capture. As the indicators are refined over the coming months, careful consideration should be given to qualitative rule-of-law and good-governance measures to complement rankings, scores and survey methodologies.
Beyond identifying indicators for the SDGs, the greatest pending challenge will be faced at the national level, where governments, in conversation with civil society and donors, will need to develop action plans. The U.S. government’s announcement of a new Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable on the eve of the UN Sustainable Development Summit is a welcome such Goal 16 initiative.
As states develop their action plans, ABA ROLI’s rule of law assessment tools can provide a framework for governments, donors, legislators, policy-makers and civil society. The tools can be used to undertake de jure and de facto analyses of such topics as the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary, gender equality, efforts to combat human trafficking and access to justice, and to identify priority areas for reform. This process will also challenge those of us in the rule of law development field to take a cold hard look at our efforts to support reform and to identify those that have been successful and worthy of replicating in service of Goal 16. I am particularly pleased that ABA ROLI has in recent years made a priority of investing in its in-house monitoring and evaluation capacity, building such assessments into most of its programming. And I look forward to our sharing that growing expertise with the development community as the 2030 goals increase the focus on rule of law.
In sum, there is much for the rule of law community in the United States and abroad to celebrate this week, but next week, it’ll be time to get down to work. The clock is already ticking on the ambitious 2030 rule of law agenda, and there’s much to be done to define what that agenda requires and how we will achieve it.