On SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

When the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, Goal 16 was seen as truly transformative, formally linking, for the first time at the United Nations, development, peace, justice, and good governance. Some of its more ambitious targets include significantly reducing all forms of violence, ending abuse and violence against children, promoting the rule of law, reducing illicit financial flows and corruption, and developing accountable and transparent institutions.

But Goal 16 was not adopted without controversy. Many countries argued against the intrusion of peace and security, and even more so justice, considerations into the development sphere, and would have preferred that the goal be dropped altogether. Other countries maintained that this goal was central for them and that their support for the 2030 Agenda hinged upon it.

Nearly three years later, progress on Goal 16 is uneven, and there is considerable doubt that it can be achieved at its current implementation rate. Challenges arise in all countries, including Canada, and are likely to become more acute given current trends, particularly those related to violence.

Violence worldwide is on the rise and becoming increasingly complex and multidimensional. Almost half the world’s people have been affected by political violence over the last fifteen years, with lower-income countries bearing a disproportionately high share of the burden of armed violence. Yet developed countries are not immune — in many parts of the developed world, different forms of violence are also on the rise. Canada itself faces domestic challenges in addressing issues of violence and homicide, particularly against women and children.

Canada is also facing challenges in other related areas of Goal 16. Issues of justice for Indigenous Peoples have been much debated but insufficiently addressed over the past four decades. Comprehensively combatting transnational organised crime and illicit financial flows are elusive goals for Canada as well.

The challenge will be linking these subnational priorities with national strategies.

A common impediment for countries attempting to implement Goal 16 is the yawning gaps in reliable data, making it difficult to measure progress in meeting the goal’s targets. Fragile and conflict-affected states, in particular, often have incomplete, imperfect, or a total lack of data. The countries of the world vary hugely in their capacity to collect, monitor, and track indicators.

Moreover, obstacles to reaching the goals of SDG 16 are increasingly encountered in urban areas. Populations in cities are expected to increase to almost 70 per cent by 2050, and cities register higher homicide rates than rural areas. The challenges found within ‘fragile cities’ — characterised by rapid, unregulated urbanisation; high levels of inequality, unemployment, and violence; poor access to key services; and exposure to climate threats — mean that Goal 16 must be addressed at the subnational level.

In this context, one possible approach to accelerate the pace of implementation is to link national and local-level policies, providing greater support to subnational governance institutions. Local and regional governments in many countries have already recognised this, arguing that new institutional arrangements and channels of coordination need to underpin more effective, accountable, and transparent institutions, as well as more responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making. This is necessary for local governments to become more responsive to their communities, and for states to deliver on Goal 16.

Positive initiatives are currently underway that illustrate how this is happening. New forms of participatory decision-making — such as in budgeting and in enhancements to city housing, service delivery, and slum conditions — have led to improvements in public security and urban safety. Local governments have been working internationally and nationally to share relevant information and innovative, frequently data-driven, solutions.

The challenge will be linking these subnational priorities with national strategies. For example, Canada’s progress in implementing its Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2016–2019, which focuses on the environmental aspects of the SDGs, does not sufficiently account for Goal 16, even though one of the aims of the strategy is to build safe, secure, and sustainable communities. However, at the provincial level, many strategies overlap with the SDGs — without specifically mentioning them — focusing on employment, education, and environmental concerns, but less commonly on violence and justice.

Achieving implementation of Goal 16 is a daunting task globally, for poorer countries in particular. The plethora of targets and indicators aiming to guide them tends to create white noise. Some countries have been felt disempowered by the ambition and wide spectrum of the 2030 Agenda, as much as they have been able to harness its potential for energising society. This has represented an obvious downside in practice to the United Nations’ otherwise admirable effort to design an all-encompassing agenda.

National governments will get to showcase their achievements at the United Nations High Level Political Forum, which is reviewing Goal 16 in 2019. Until then, greater effort is required nearly everywhere to achieve implementation of national policies towards this goal. Improved links between the national and subnational levels will move us all in the right direction.

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This essay is part of Awakening — a collection of essays and artwork exploring sustainable development, organized by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Canada.

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