Book Review: “Governing through Goals: SDGs as Governance Innovation”


Book Review:
Governing through Goals: Sustainable Development Goals as Governance Innovation, edited by Norichika Kanie and Frank Biermann, MIT Press, 2017
(A 2019 article by one of the editors, Norichika Kanie, and some of this book’s authors, summarize the book’s premise – for those facing a TLDR moment.)
The UN Member States developed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) between March 2013 and July 2014 through the Open Working Group (OWG) of the UN General Assembly for SDGs. This was a unique inter-governmental process and I had the privilege of being involved personally. The UN General Assembly formally adopted the 17 goals in late 2015, shortly before I retired from the Organization. 
Governing through Goals is a comprehensive analysis of both the OWG process that generated the goals and their institutional follow up. The main premise of the book is that the 17 SDGs provide for a different type of international governance – one that moves from governance-by-rule-making to governance-by-goal-setting. 
Reading the authors’ analyses of the OWG process was a fun trip on memory lane. But my focus moved onto the analyses of the follow up. Two chapters were particularly interesting on follow up: Chapter 9 (The United Nations and the Governance of Sustainable Development Goals, by Steven Bernstein) and Chapter 10 (The Sustainable Development Goals and Multilateral Agreements, by A. Underdal and R. Kim). The first specifically looked at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the inter-governmental body that replaced the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and is currently the center of the SDG progress review exercise. Orchestration is raised in both chapters as the suggested method of leadership for the HLPF. 
Being a musician, the idea of orchestration instantly appeals even though the authors here do not mean it in that musical sense. Besides, the musical kind would not work at the UN (see Endnote on why). As defined in Chapter 9, orchestration is “governance through intermediaries using soft influence to guide and support actions.” The concept of orchestration in international governance is from the work of Dr. Kenneth Abbott of Arizona State University (here is a list of his work on the subject).
Suggesting orchestration as the method for HLPF is an admittance of the Forum’s lack of resources and power to enforce commitments, and ensure implementation of the SDGs. The Forum, like the rest of the UN especially in the economic and social fields,  depends on persuasion, peer pressure, and other indirect influence to get its work done.
Direct governance of a complex implementation process such as that of the SDGs would need a veritable army of people to monitor, measure, analyze and report on progress. The UN never had and is unlikely to have that kind of human and financial resources. Therefore, by necessity, it works with and through soft influence and intermediaries, including a variety of non-state actors from NGOs to business to scientists and more.
In the sustainable development universe these actors are known as the Major Groups and they were the focus of my work while in the CSD Secretariat. My mission in that job was to create openings and opportunities (precedents) for the major groups representatives to engage with the Member States in the CSD. One could loosely call it ‘enabling orchestration’ although we did not because the concept of “orchestration” was not in our analytic vocabulary. Instead, we called it coordination: coordination within the UN system, coordination with non-state actors, coordination to support the member states and the like but always coordination, never orchestration.
Coordination is creating order out of chaos together. It is not about one dominating or ordering others around. It is about putting heads together to find the optimal ways to solve a common problem. It is the ultimate soft influence and indirect governance process. So in my experience coordination, a key element in UN mandates, is not much  different from what the authors of this book mean by orchestration.  
Looking at the specific context of the SDGs, one notes that some goals are not as dependent on indirect governance methods because they are on issues that have one or more well established, rule-based, and legally-binding direct governance instruments supporting their implementation. For example Goal 5 on Gender Equality has the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). And Goal 13 on Climate Change has the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), one of the most complex implementation and reporting systems ever created by the UN.
Most other goals, lacking the basis for direct governance, depend on the “indirect influence and guidance through intermediaries” method. I can also argue that these goals allow room for multi-stakeholder partnership initiatives – those that are publicly announced, and reporting at the UN, to turn the goals into reality. In the process they may change the governance approach of the intergovernmental organization that receives the partnership progress reports, by redefining the status of the partners.
That was the idea when a CSD Secretariat colleague and I came up with the idea of sustainable development partnerships for the Wold Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD, Johannesburg, S. Africa, 2002) . Our goal was to propose a set of meeting outcomes that would be formally adopted but not negotiated. Having done the multi-stakeholder dialogues in the CSD 1998-2001, these partnerships would be a natural next step. I expected that when actors come in as partners they would break free of their traditional roles as government, NGO, business or UN agency. And that this might change sustainable development decision making at the UN. Unfortunately it did not work that way. Post-WSSD, the CSD secretariat dropped the ball on this idea and both of us originators of the WSSD partnerships idea had moved on to other UN positions after WSSD. This  unfinished business of multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development was in the back of my mind as I followed the OWG negotiations, hoping that multi-stakeholder global initiatives on some of the goals might emerge. Arrangements similar to the Sustainable Energy for All – which was launched before the SDGs but became naturally linked to Goal 7 on Energy once the SDGs were adopted.  
Did the SDG Framework enable a new and innovative kind of governance-by-goals? Despite strong arguments made by the authors of this book, the idea seems a bit an overreach. UN has crafted goals and targets for decades. The outcome of every UN conference or special event was a document containing agreed goals and even specific targets. Besides the OWG was not aiming for a new governance method as it negotiated the goals. Their aim was to create a tangible and inspiring to-do list, a roadmap. Plus the UN Member states are comfortable with what is rule-based: governance-by-goals is too wishy washy, hard to control. 
What really makes the SDGs really unique is the ownership they enjoy:  by the UN Member States, the UN system, and the non-state actors. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs were hand picked from the hundreds of goals adopted by the UN conferences of the 1990s by a group of white men sitting in the Secretary General’s  (then Kofi Annan) office back in mid-2000. Many NGOs and UN agencies remained lukewarm to the MDGs. Developing countries warmed up to them when donor countries started aligning their financial assistance to the MDGs.
The SDGs are different. Hundreds of multinational companies not only know about the SDGs but have rearranged their internal strategies according to the goal framework. The UN reformed its development system of to reflect the SDGs throughout its work at all levels. More importantly, ordinary people know about the SDGs and mainstream media writes about them! MDGs never had it that good. 
A way to build on this level of ownership could be to borrow a system that works well for the human rights field and bring it into the SDGs: appointing independent Special Rapporteurs (SPs) for each SDG. SPs are mandated to produce hard-hitting, honest reports. They are allowed to point fingers. This is what we need for the SDGs. Already many of the Voluntary National Reports (a key transparency aspect of the SDG implementation process) are sounding like PR campaigns not an honest sharing of information on what worked and what did not. The UN’s allergy to the idea of “failure” is all over the process. (In the UN there is success or great success, never failure). Special Rapporteurs can change this. And since they are Independent, they cannot be accused of being manipulated by a specific country or a UN agency. We are already six years into the SDG implementation process and not much success can be identified. May be it is not too late to have SPs engaged for the remainder of the till the deadline of 2030? 
As a final note, for me, the value of a a piece of work, academic or artistic, is in whether it makes me think, and curious for more. In that context, the book in review here has accomplished this. It made me think about the SDGs anew, and made me curious to dig into the  orchestration concept. Now I have all kinds of articles to read on orchestration, and Dr. Abbott’s 2015 book “International Organizations as Orchestrators” is on my desk to read next.  
Endnote: Why musical orchestration would not work at the UN
Music and musical orchestration follow clear rules that frame both the content and the process and these rules are accepted by all those involved: the orchestrator, the players,  and the conductor. The parliamentary rules that UN bodies follow are about procedure not content. On content,  there is often a vast difference in how the UN Member States understand concepts such as gender equality, or rule of law. In fact, corresponding goals 5 (gender equality) and 16 (partially on rule of law) may not have emerged if there had been a strong push for a strictly common understanding of these concepts. This difference was abundantly demonstrated during the Open Working Group negotiations on gender equality and the target of “early and childhood marriage.” Some countries vociferously argued that their social custom defines marriage age differently making an 8 year old girl marriageable. This debate may have broken the potential consensus on Goal 5 if countries were “forced” to see “early and childhood marriage” in exactly the same way. A level of flexibility is built into the UN process for the sake of agreement. This does not make sense to outsiders. Allowing weak definitions is often like keeping the door ajar with the possibility of opening it further later. In that process, setting even small precedents is critical. 
Continuing with the musical angle, the analogy further unravels when one considers that in music there are clear nodes of authority such as the conductor and the orchestrator. UN members will resist such hierarchy. The UN is like a beast with 193 heads. Although meetings have a chairperson (or co-chairs) they cannot strong-arm the members (as an orchestra conductor can). Similarly, the Secretariat can provide a great deal of information and analysis but it also cannot determine the outcome (as an orchestrator can). Lastly, both the chairpersons and the secretariat of an intergovernmental body need to be individuals who understand both the content and the politics well which is not always the case. I have worked with Chairpersons who could not even read their meeting script let alone show mastery of the content. So orchestration of the musical kind is a long stretch for the UN.

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About Zehra Aydin 14 Articles
Retired UN staff; expert in sustainable development, SDGs, UN system and international environmental negotiations; writing on climate change, inequality, technology and the UN; teaching sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

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