How can we ensure that governance and accountability stay for good on the international agenda in every country?
Last year made it abundantly clear that governance is not only an important factor in effectiveness in virtually any state’s affairs. It is the overriding factor of every aspect of life – indeed, the alpha and the omega of human progress.
After many years on the sideline, it is moving towards the big time. Oddly enough, there is no UN Governance Day. December 9 is anti-corruption day; however, poor governance does not always equate to corruption. Besides, the term “governance” as a sell is much easier than “anti-corruption” in many countries.
Governance and UN International Days
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/Alamy Live News
To highlight a certain issue, UN Agencies or the General Assembly advocate for the creation of UN International days. For example, UNESCO spearheaded the creation of World Press Freedom Day (May 3), and in collaboration with World Press Photo, has made early May a lighthouse to raise awareness of the issue far and wide.
These are not “just” days – they allow organizations and institutions around the world to draw attention to a particular issue around sustainability (water, forests), health (malaria, tuberculosis), or the plight of those who should be remembered more (children, refugees).
When I was at Shell, we used December 10 to remind senior management that human rights were not just a peripheral topic for the company – it was part and parcel of doing business. Violate human rights, and you risk a hornet’s nest of financial, legal, and moral challenges. For December 10, we created videos, presented them to project managers, and wrote case studies to raise awareness and make the business case to those senior leaders.
To its credit, Shell did listen, and while it didn’t embrace human rights, it at least gave it a solid hug. The company was certainly a human rights leader among its peers. Without UN Human Rights Day, there would have been no hook, and thus no action.
India’s Governance Day – Christmas Day no less
India has taken a proactive approach, having introduced “Good Governance” day on December 25 to raise awareness of accountability in government. The date has less to do with Christmas and more with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday.
For its launch in 2014, the government and virtually every minister developed various programs to highlight the theme, ranging from e-governance and health insurance to developing rural roads and renewing urban infrastructure.
Civil servants must work that day, and it has garnered some negative reactions around those who celebrate Christmas. However, the fact that they take the subject seriously enough to elevate it to a national holiday is impressive. Unfortunately, the date only covers about 1.35 billion people.
When such a date?
An array of UN International Days are dedicated to important themes, whether it be Children (November 20), Democracy (September 15), Education (January 24), or World Water Day (June 22).
In many parts of the world, December seems to be a month where people may be in a slightly better mood and thus could be adopted to highlight a day or “do something” for that day. However, pegging governance to December may be tough, with 17 days now occupied. Other crowded months include April (22), October (17), with June leading for the most days (28).
With only three International days, January is a great candidate to have another international day added to the month. In addition to World Braille Day (4th), January days also include International Day of Education (24th) and Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust (27th). Most importantly, December’s celebrations are over, budgets have been closed, and now it is time to work with a clean slate, ideally with accountability as your North Star.
The current moment provides an opportunity for the incoming U.S. administration to highlight governance’s importance through the United Nations and also provide a subtle statement regarding the Trump Administration’s, at times, erratic governance.
President-Elect Biden has picked former Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the U.S.’s UN Envoy. With her vast experience in countries with governance challenges, she could place governance even more on the international agenda. Another step that the Administration could make would be to promote accountable governance with its international partners, following Germany’s lead in early 2020 with the BMZ 2030 reform strategy.
International Governance Day
Would an International Governance Day be a much-needed hook to assist the International development community and, most of all, a country’s citizens and CSOs to highlight how contracts are rewarded, how pollution is ignored, and how resources should be used sustainably? Given the experiences of other international days and how they have moved the policy needle, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” The awareness-raising alone would continue moving the term “governance” from the margins to the mainstream. After all, it is trillions of dollars affecting billions of people.
While every day should be human rights day, world water day, and education day, in many cases, they are not. Having a day dedicated to an important issue is a step in the right direction. Governance encompasses many of the UN International Days and is the foundation to lead a country and its population into a more prosperous future.
Just this one day each year would help thousands of entities advocate for accountable governance, leading to progress on every other day of the year.
While I would love peace on earth for Christmas this year, I am a realist and would be extremely happy with an International Governance Day, starting in January 2022.
May I suggest that we, as readers of the TAI blog, have a collective New Year’s Resolution that strives for just that?
Richard Dion is a governance, communications, and regional development consultant based in Germany.