Race To 2030: Rethinking Governance For Sustainable Development in a Post-COVID World

By Oluwabusola Fadipe, Programme Manager, SocialGood UK

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

The biggest conversations since the pandemic hit have primarily been centered on economic recovery and scaling vaccine roll-out across the globe. At the earliest stage of the global pandemic, there was a minor shift away from focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) justifiably as a result of combating the global health crisis. On different levels, many SDG targets came to a stand-still while governments and international organizations pressed for research and development of a vaccine or finding ways to keep economies open. It led to a prioritization of global health financing which led many to question: are we leaving the SDGs behind? With less than a decade to the 2030 deadline for achieving the global goals, the big question for policymakers, experts, and actors is: how do we go from here?

First, the pandemic exposed the fragility of the global healthcare and social welfare system, particularly in low-income countries with remarkably low budgets for the health sector. However, a weak governance is perhaps the most important lesson we should take away from the new normal. This is largely because a major discovery at the initial outbreak of the pandemic was the central role that governance plays in a global emergency situation. The pandemic exposed the level of preparedness and the apparent lack of resilience in many countries. What this means is that governments in the weeks to follow had to grapple with what measures to put in place, how relief systems would work — especially for the most vulnerable who require a social safety net — what kind of economic stimulus would be granted to businesses to stay afloat, or how the government will communicate its plan to the people. These unprecedented times showed the fundamental importance of good governance and strong public institutions.

Prior to the pandemic, many countries struggled with weak public institutions that struggled to guarantee resilience and ensure sustainable development. For example, many countries still adopt centralized, traditional systems of governance replete with red-tapism. At the outbreak of the pandemic, a good number of countries were unable to properly assess the situation, monitor confirmed cases and promptly take national actions due to a long, bureaucratic process, creating indecision on how to handle the crisis. To illustrate, Nigeria, the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa confirmed and announced its first case on February 27, 2020. However, there was no follow-up action plan for detecting new cases, containment of further spread, or risk communication. As a matter of fact, it took another four weeks before a lockdown was imposed in the major cities to curb the virus from spreading, without plans for mass testing to complement these efforts.

In light of the above, there is a crucial need to rethink how governments and institutions operate. One approach is through digital governance, which leverages technology for public service delivery. A great benefit of digital governance is the ability to accelerate decision-making through collaborative dashboards across public service with minimal bureaucracy. In addition, digital governance can encourage citizen participation in public policy, thereby bridging the gap between government and its citizens. In the last decade, we have seen social media powered by digital technology become a powerful medium for government officials to engage with citizens. While there are significant barriers for low-income countries with limited access to technology, optimizing technology could make a significant difference in government business through access to public information; aggregating public opinion for policy actions; collating reports from government departments — especially those at the frontline of the development agenda without multiple committee meetings — and monitoring progress of different development programs and initiatives.

Finally, in a world where normal activities have had to go digital — from education to remote working to commerce, it is time for governments across the world to embrace technology in their public service. Thus, it is important that the dialogue on sustainable development should equally involve building the capacity of countries to develop digital governance infrastructure for achieving the global goals, particularly in less developed countries with low digital penetration that could hinder the implementation of digital governance systems.