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Ambitious Sustainable Development Goals: The New Global Governance Strategy?

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Global-Goal Setting can affect Governance Architectures. Read this research paper summary to understand the performance of the new strategy.

The need for global governance today is clear- war in Ukraine, humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the lurking fear of world War 3, and major climate, economy, terrorism and energy related issues. Since the last two decades, this need has been recognized and prioritized by the United Nations. The huge success of the Millennium Development Goals (broad policy goals to put together the activities of governments, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector) caused the United Nations to come up with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. These goals as a mechanism of global governance have a key influence on governance architectures.

The paper by Marjanneke J. Vijge et al. named 'Governance Through Global Goals' explores the same influence of global goals on governance. It attempts to study four key characteristics of global goals (MDGs & SDGs); non-legally binding nature; the underlying weak institutional arrangements; the inclusiveness of the goal-setting process; and the national leeway in the implementation of the goals. These characteristics are reviewed in relation with performance of governance architectures.

Can global goals reduce norm conflicts? Can global goals help create self-organizing action teams? Can global goals advance institutional integration between decision-making systems? Concerned with answering these questions, the paper seeks to understand the impact of global goals and outlines future challenges that can appear in global governance architectures. Let's delve into the findings-

Non-legally Binding Nature

Both SDGs and MDGs have been a form of political agreement and not international law. They have been essentially non-compulsory. The paper puts forth the pros and cons of this characteristic. Scholars believe that the non-legally binding nature complicates governance architectures and international cooperation by disrupting the sense of commitment; ineffective strategy. The goals have been criticized for their inability to mobilize wider and multi-level political arenas along with their power to overlook previous agendas. For example, it is believed that the MDGs crushed many previously agreed initiatives of the 1990s conference agendas.

On the other hand, scholars appreciate this characteristic by highlighting the component of induced self-governance and adaptability. This means that it motivates countries to pick and choose goals according to their motivations unlike legal prescriptive behaviours. It is also mentioned that accountability mechanisms like voluntary national reviews in SDGs can increase compliance at a local level.

Weak Institutional Arrangements

The paper exposes the juxtaposition of 'lack of formal status in the UN' and 'orchestration-soft modes of influence' in global goals. The SDGs and MDGs have not been implemented and enforced in a predictable fashion. The United Nations as well is in no way in control of resolving disputes or creating collective norms when global goals are set. The absence of an authoritative controlling body in governance is presumably believed to render the global goals ineffective.

However, the UN adopts a fragmented government model involving bottom-up/participatory strategies through intermediary organizations at some places which can have a positive impact on effectiveness. For example, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development is an influential legitimate body with no authority to make formal decisions, a perfect orchestration strategy.


Global goals give a lot of importance to inclusiveness at the procedural level and the outcome level for legitimacy. Recognizing the shift from participation in the 1990s to multi-stakeholdership in 2002 with the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the goals help achieve stakeholder democracy (a hybrid form of governance involving dialogues at many levels and public-private-partnerships). Even though effective, this mechanism has been criticized for overlooking representation of marginalized groups, monitoring, and biased funding and reporting.

For example, the MDGs reflected the non-inclusive values of dependency theory of development; the goals were directed towards developing countries where industrialized countries acted as guides. Besides this, the MDG declaration was passed through the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee with no appropriate participation. The SDGs on the contrary, emerged from a mould-breaking negotiation process and a highly inclusive Open Working Group. Despite being a procedural success, the SDGs have also been weak in aligning inclusive invitations with participation, implementation and holding global trade systems accountable.

National Leeway

The formulated global goals depend on how nations seek to translate the goals into action. While the choice to implement or not to implement the global goals raises questions on inclusiveness and fairness, the important adoption of national needs and contexts during implementation has been praised under this characteristic. For instance, different nations cannot be measured on development performance using similar scales as it is unfair and an inadequate measure. This is something that happened with Africa while implementing the MDGs wherein they showed poor performance even after good progress.

Setting up inter-governmental monitoring and evaluation mechanisms has been found to help in implementation of national strategies. Although they encourage self-regulation, there is often no clarity on execution, measurement (quantitative/qualitative) and monitoring by national governments. This situation also points to the opportunity to learn and develop social learning across institutions globally as some goals cannot be evaluated in a standardized/non-integrated manner.

After analyzing these four characteristics, it is revealed that global goals might have an effect on governance architectures. All the findings pinpoint a modular global governance architecture. This is because the paper emphasizes how the non-legally binding nature of global goals serves as a soft influence for institutional integration and how fragmented governments (conflictive) can create flexibility and adaptiveness within structures. Building on the concept of fragmentation, it also discusses the synergistic nature of global goals and how they form a polycentric system of multiple actors (state, non-state, private, and more) referred to as overlapping actor constellations.

Thus, global governance through goals is an influential mechanism with large scope. The research paper highlights it well and raises important questions for future research in implementation, orchestration, inclusivity and more.

For a more comprehensive understanding, read the full research paper here-

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