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Q&A with Mark Robinson: The Role of Good Governance in Sustainable Development

Fair and effective governance is critical to ensuring that development benefits both people and the planet. Good governance should entail processes, decisions and outcomes that sustain natural resources, alleviate poverty and improve the quality-of-life.

Mark Robinson recently joined WRI as the Global Director of Governance. He’s spent more than 25 years in the international development field, holding senior positions at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Institute for Development Studies (IDS), Ford Foundation and Overseas Development Institute (ODI). We caught up with Mark to find out why governance is so important for sustainable development, as well as what some of the biggest governance challenges and opportunities will be in the coming years.

1) What drew you to governance work?

My initial interest in governance was sparked by two very different sources. The first was that the stirrings of policy interest in governance from international aid agencies in the late 1980s provided fertile soil for early research work when I was working at ODI and IDS. The second, and very much linked to this, was the wave of pro-democracy movements that erupted across East and Central Europe and Africa at this time, from which I derived inspiration in the power of people to shape political events that then shape development.

2) What does good governance look like?

Governments that are accountable and responsive to their citizens, transparent in their reporting on the use of public resources and in decision making, and that create opportunities for participation in policy and service delivery. Good governance stems from a set of favorable political conditions in which people have the right to vote, exercise oversight and seek redress from politicians and officials. The real test of good governance is when citizens feel secure and trust governments to conduct public affairs in the best interests of society as a whole rather than for the privileged few.

3) What does good governance have to do with the environment and sustainable development?

A governance lens offers a powerful impetus for promoting reforms in policies and programs for sustainable development. These include open and transparent opportunities for poor and disadvantaged citizens to access information and secure their rights over land, forest and energy resources, and to encourage governments to adopt policies that are more friendly to people and the environment. The massive injection of public funding for mitigation and adaptation and the complex political processes that underpin climate change negotiations can benefit from governance perspectives to shed light on the power, interests and resources at stake in order to bring about better outcomes.

4) What do you see being the biggest governance challenges for a sustainable future?

Addressing the risks of conflict over natural resources in fragile states and enabling those states that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change to adapt effectively to the threats of resource depletion and dislocation. Cities will increasingly become the primary focus of governance challenges in the coming decades. They’re the primary source of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions, but face huge and growing challenges over the distribution and allocation of resources, especially for energy, transport and housing.

5) And on the flip side, what do you see as the biggest governance opportunities in the next five years?

One, a new Sustainable Development Goal in the post-2015 framework that promotes peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all and effective and accountable institutions. And two, the inclusion of governance perspectives in the big U.N. climate change conference in Paris at the end of this year, when countries will establish a new international climate agreement. Including the principles of transparency and accountability in the decision-making and resource allocation aspects of this agreement are the most important opportunities for the governance agenda, and will set the direction for the coming five years.

6) In your opinion, is good governance a means to an end or an end in itself?

It is both a means and an end. Governance is both a goal in itself that fosters a climate of respect for universal rights and promotes political and social inclusion for disadvantaged citizens, especially women, youth and children. It also provides the political and institutional context for realizing major sustainable development outcomes, including poverty reduction, inclusive growth, protecting natural resources and tackling inequality.

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