Data Monitoring, Without Independent Accountability, Will Not Deliver for Women and Girls
The very notion of independent accountability at the United Nations is rare. It was largely absent in debates on tracking the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That’s not surprising since many decision-makers are loath to the idea, as witnessed in the pushback during the SDG negotiations. Many advocates and a few Member States and UN entities pressed for something akin to how the Human Rights Council reviews how governments are faring in delivering on their promises. The proposal didn’t get very far.
The good news is that shortcomings in achieving the Millennium Development Goals and the need to do so much better to tackle poverty and inequalities have prompted a swell in the use of the term “accountability”. It is frequently mentioned—in the UN Secretary-General’s reform agenda, in government statements, and by heads of UN agencies. But the fundamental meaning and democratic groundings of accountability risk being diluted.
The extraordinary efforts and dedication of so many around the world to measure who and what really matters to achieve the SDGs—with equity and equality at the forefront—are to be applauded. We need better data to effectively monitor and know how money has been allocated, for whom and for what, and the results we are achieving. But too often, “accountability” is being conflated with monitoring.
Data monitoring is fundamental, but accountability is about much more. It is about people’s voice and influence on decision-making to make policies and investments work best for achieving the SDGs. It is about political leadership and institutional courage to listen and learn from mistakes, take action to avoid repeating them, and make swift changes for the better on the road to 2030, while celebrating and building on good achievements. It goes way beyond ticking off indicators to see if the needle is moving, to transforming the underlying power dynamics and structural inequalities that are leaving so many behind. And for that, we need independent accountability at all levels.
One need not go farther than the UN System to understand through a practical example why independent accountability is so important. It is no secret that the UN internal system of justice is dysfunctional, yet decades of sexual harassment cases have been handled internally. In the absence of external review of allegations, the UN has failed to uphold the rights of too many women.
Accountability is about taking responsibility for our decisions and actions. Mistakes and failures are opportunities to change course and make better decisions. Governments and UN development cooperation partners stand to benefit, rather than be blindsided to find out only in the end that precious investments generated meager results. Or worse yet, that business as usual on accountability served to perpetuate inequalities, or caused harm and human rights violations.
The mistrust that poses a key barrier to meaningful accountability across stakeholders must be broken down. Instead, the floodgates should be opened up for meaningful, constructive, participatory and open reviews from academic experts, civil society, women and young people, and the multitude of disenfranchised groups for whom the SDGs are intended.
The UN Secretary-General’s Independent Accountability Panel (IAP) for Every Woman, Every Child, Every Adolescent is one of the few global mechanisms with genuine autonomy. Established in 2016, it has one mission: to drive strengthened accountabilities for the SDGs to deliver for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health, rights and well-being—through external, independent review.
What I have grasped in my short time with the IAP is how, outside official UN debates, there is a real hunger out there to engage in accountability dialogues, including by governments, parliamentarians, and UN partners. This is very positive and refreshing, but we need to zero in on accountability by stepping up investments in processes and systems and moving full steam ahead from rhetoric to practice. Governments and all actors involved need capacity-building and support. There is little understanding yet in many corners of how to go about it and accountability doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a longer-term bet to get these processes right, with challenges and failings along the way. But we will miss the mark on the SDGs, and on delivering for women and girls, if we don’t work together to get it right.
María José Alcalá Donegani is the IAP’s Head of Secretariat. She was the High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Director of Secretariat in her prior post, another independent mechanism, established for the ICPD+20 and SDG negotiations.