How about some world governance goals?

Article Highlights

  • The U.N. needs to do more than rely on its Democracy Fund to help Arab nations build on their 2011 gains

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  • Decades of bad governance—much more than poverty—have produced an antigovernment explosion across the Arab world

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  • Countries that are governed poorly are not reducing poverty, no matter how much foreign assistance they receive

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In response to the demand for freedom and democratic governance that swept through the Arab world in 2011, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has committed the United Nations to helping the transitional democracies build on the gains of the past year. Yet the U.N. needs to do more than rely on its Democracy Fund's provision of financial assistance to nongovernmental organizations and the Department of Political Affairs' election monitoring and capacity-building missions. While these activities have made some contributions on the margins, they have done little to promote fundamental institutions of democratic governance and the rule of law.

Fortunately, there is an excellent model available in the Millennium Development Goals, which the U.N. established in 2000 with the aim of eliminating or reducing poverty dramatically—and also improving health care, for example—by 2015. Even though many countries are still a long way from achieving those goals and are unlikely to do so by 2015, the MDGs are an important innovation. They provide, for the first time, an official measure of progress toward poverty elimination for each country in the world.

However, there is a problem with the development goals that goes deeper than an unrealistic deadline. In many respects these goals are looking at the symptom, poverty, and not the cause—which is, to a large extent, bad governance. Around the world, countries that are governed well, such as Brazil and Ghana, are making progress against poverty. Countries that are governed poorly are not reducing poverty, no matter how much foreign assistance they receive.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arab world where, even in "middle income" countries, particularly Egypt, large numbers of people are still poor and are forced to work outside the formal economy because of the oppressive role of government. Decades of bad governance—much more than poverty—have produced an antigovernment explosion across the Arab world.

If the U.N. is serious about promoting democracy, it should establish goals, similar to its Millennium Development Goals, to measure progress on governance and the rule of law.

These might be called Millennium Governance Goals, perhaps realistically aimed at achievement by 2050. The important thing is not the target date. It is the measurement of progress over time on such issues as establishing written constitutions and laws; implementing universal suffrage and free elections; guaranteeing freedom of speech and association; protecting the independence of the judiciary; and ensuring the accountability of officials. Realization of these goals would mean the effective end of dictatorial and autocratic rule and lay foundations for strong and genuine democracy.

Fundamental democratic political change is better promoted by the demands of an informed citizenry than by pressure from other governments or international agencies. Having a publicly available scorecard to show how well governments are doing—and allow a comparison with other countries—empowers citizens to demand more from their government.

The benefits of establishing Millennium Goals focused on governance and the rule of law are twofold. First, setting goals agreed upon by the international community would establish a minimum standard of good governance for judging a state's actions and provide a way to measure progress.

Second, promoting better governance would lead to greater progress on the U.N.'s existing development goals. Despite imperfections, democratic societies have been generally more successful than politically closed societies in combating extreme poverty and hunger, and ensuring the health of their citizens.

Freedom House has found that countries with the highest levels of democratic freedom produce 89% of the global economic output. Those countries with the least political freedom, which account for 36% of the world's population, produce only 6% of the world's wealth. Where political power is concentrated, economic power tends to be concentrated as well, with the result that the enterprise and initiative that are essential for economic growth and job creation are stifled.

The Arab Spring, with both its successes and failures, has exposed the canard that the Middle East is indifferent to democratic ideals. Yet much more needs to be done—from ensuring the successful transition to and consolidation of democracy in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, to supporting civil society in countries like Syria. Establishing Millennium Government Goals will help the U.N. chart a new way forward.

Mr. Palmer, U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 1986 to 1990, is the author of "Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). Mr. Glen, a lawyer in Washington, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Mr. Wolfowitz, who was ambassador to Indonesia from 1986-1989, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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