It’s the Institutions, Stupid!

Blog piece Richard Sannerholm

Sustainable Development Goal 16 has been identified both as an outcome and an enabler of sustainable development [i]. It is not only intuitively appealing but also empirically correct. Try as we might we can’t do without institutions, and if we want to do well – develop sustainably – we can’t do without institutions with specific qualities.

To function as an enabling goal, to reach outcomes in relation to goals on poverty, hunger, health, education and gender equality – the quality of institutions we know are important has to be taken more seriously.

Outside the confines of the SDGs we typically refer to this institutional quality as the rule of law. For different reasons this age-old concept found itself relegated to a sub-section of access to justice in the SDG framework (see ILAC’s Policy Brief on SDG 16). Goal 16 has thus evolved into a hub of thinking around access to justice and how to remedy justice gaps. Important reports like the Justice for All or the Universal access to basic justice spotlight the justice needs a large portion of the world’s population experience (an estimated of 70 percent of the world’s population).

“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” is the full title of SDG 16 and, although a mouthful it is spot on in getting to the core of the problem. It really matters how effective, inclusive, and accountable institutions are. While working on access to justice is laudable and much needed, ensuring quality of institutions is desperately in want of attention. Access to justice concentrates on the “input side”. This means what the access to public authority looks like. The indicators of Goal 16.3, measuring rule of law and access to justice (a meager two!) illustrate this point: “the proportion of victims of violence in the previous 12 months who reported their victimization to competent authorities” and “unsentenced detainees as a proportion of overall prison population”.

The quality of institutions is the real enabler of SDG

Now we must double down on our efforts to work on the “output side” – that is, to also look at how public authority is exercised [ii]. Because it is not that complicated to see that victims of violence and unsentenced detainees depend on competent agencies meeting institutional qualities of effectiveness, impartiality, openness and accountability. Without these qualities, detainees and victims will continue to remain symptoms of a more chronic illness – weak rule of law. And the same applies to other goals in the SDG framework. Environment, health or gender equality depend in large part on an institutional framework for ensuring non-discrimination, regulating fairness in health programmes or environmental protection.

In SDG terms institutional qualities of this kind are implied in Goal 16.3 but without being reflected in any of its indicators. However, they are explicitly found in Goal 16.6, which reads: “Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions”. The indicators for this target range from government expenditures within budgets, satisfaction with public services, representation in public institutions and inclusive decision-making.

Compared with Goal 16.3 and access to justice, public expenditure, representation and public services may all seem like less important or less immediate. But how budgets are followed, and public services delivered, goes to the root causes of why, for example, we have unmet justice needs. If institutions have a limited role in making a government stick to budget, or deliver services in a fair and impartial manner, and if there are no legal consequences in terms of accountability to talk of, then we have a situation where rule of law is, by design, out of order.

And this is the state of play in a growing number of countries around the world where the wave of autocratisation is sweeping away the meaning of legality, impartiality, equality before the law and accountability One estimate says that one third of the world’s population now lives in countries where liberal democracy and rule of law is in serious decline.[iii] Combining this number with existing authoritarian countries means that just short half of the world’s population live under conditions where there “strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”.

That institutions matter is not news. ILAC has worked for twenty years with institutions and legal professionals to strengthen institutional qualities. ILAC and the National Center for State Court’s programme in Tunisia is one practical example of working along the lines of SDG 16.6. Another example is the commitment to rule of law and public administration, carried out by the Swedish agency Folke Bernadotte Academy in Ukraine and elsewhere.

But in the current initiatives around Goal 16, institutions are far from the center of conversation. In today’s world, it is difficult to marshal broad coalitions around rule of law principles such as legality, impartiality, equality before the law and accountability. Rule of law not only promises to change what access to public authorities looks like, but also what public authorities can and cannot do. It is by restraining power through institutional guarantees that Goal 16 can really become a goal and an enabler of other goals.

Move forward by defining accountability building coalitions 

What can be done? There is already significant momentum around Goal 16 and access to justice. The recent initiatives leading up to the High-level political forum and SDG Summit have demonstrated the force and potential of involving different stakeholders – governments, state agencies, international organisations, national non-profit agencies, research labs and academic centres. A similar way forward is possible for Goal 16.6, focusing on institutions, accountability and quality. A starting-point would be to clearly spell out what accountability means, as a practical litmus test for the rule of law.

  • Can you appeal a public decision that goes against you?
  • Can a court or judicial body review laws or decisions from government agencies?
  • Are court decisions enforced against government agencies?
  • Is reparation, compensation or other forms of remedies available when a public authority acts outside the law?
  • Can judicial authorities act freely and independently as a check-and-balance on the executive and does the parliament have oversight over the executive?
  • In sum, does the governmentever lose in court?

There is no shortage of indicators to successfully building a case around Goal 16.6. This could be followed by data collection and statistics for persuasive and more exact conversations on the importance of institutional quality, mapping scalable initiatives to support legality and accountability in different settings.

Hopefully this would provide an alternative to autocratisation, using the empirically best available vaccine we have – the rule of law.


[i] 2019 HLPF review of SDG implementation: SDG 16 – Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for all, and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, Background Note.

[ii] Rothstein & Teorell, ”What is Quality of Government? A Theory of Impartial Government Institutions”, Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, Vol. 21, No 2. 2008, 165-190. P. 160.

[iii] Varieties of Democracy, Democracy Facing Global Challenges, V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019.

About the author

Richard Sannerholm is the Director of Legal Assessments and Analysis at ILAC.