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Source: Small Island Developing States

By Osvaldo Borges and Malin Herwig

There is one aspect of the current pandemic that makes it particularly dangerous – and it has nothing to do with the contagiousness of the virus or with the potentially lethal disease it causes. What makes the COVID-19 pandemic especially dangerous is that it is striking at a time when respect for key principles of governance has been eroding across the globe for a number of years.

The pandemic is striking just when there are more autocracies than democracies in the world for the first time since 2001.

In March, the 2020 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index reported that more countries’ rule of law scores were declining rather than improving for the third year in a row. And for the first time since 2001, V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2020 found that there are more autocracies than democracies in the world.

Just when our societies need inclusive and accountable governments to respond effectively to an unprecedented health crisis, the number of such governments is in decline. This is trapping us in a downward cycle: while existing governance weaknesses worsen the impacts of the pandemic, the pandemic further erodes critical norms and institutions of governance. We see this trend in established democracies as well as in closed states, and in every region of the world.

 Case Study: Corruption in Health Sector

 Even without a pandemic, corruption is a pervasive problem in the health sector. In the COVID-19 context, this interferes with the delivery of essential medical supplies as patients resort to paying bribes for medical care in hospitals that face acute shortages.

 If people do not have equal access to healthcare, clearly, the pandemic will gain momentum. In turn, COVID-19 is compounding the scourge of corruption as some governments are shortcutting anti-corruption procedures to speed up their response, and passing emergency laws criminalizing the spread of “misinformation,” including reports about government missteps. And yet, a public health crisis cannot be effectively overcome if audit agencies, potential whistleblowers, and other oversight mechanisms are hampered in their ability to provide checks on the use of public resources.

 Need for Data on Governance Quality

 These consequences highlight the importance of data on the quality of governance not only health and socio-economic data. Governance data can:

  • Draw attention to dysfunctions within governance systems that may hinder an effective response, with statistics on, for example, whether people can access justice mechanisms and if their problems are being resolved where courts are operating virtually;
  • Hold the government to account on its response plan and recovery strategy, with statistics on, for example, recipients of unemployment benefits or other income support, showing whether people without legal identity or formal employment could access emergency assistance, which can be used by oversight institutions and civil society at a time whenmany normal oversight and accountability processes have been severely disrupted; and  
  • Provide early warnings of civil unrest and violence, with statistics on, for example, people’s trust in the police to keep their area safe during lockdown measures.

Despite these important benefits, governance statistics are noticeably absent from statistical discussions around COVID-19 and from the many national “COVID-19 dashboards” built to support response and recovery strategies around the world. The absence of governance statistics may be partly because they are a fairly new area of official statistics, and partly because attention has so far focused on tracking the epidemiological profile of the pandemic and its socio-economic impacts.  

New Resource on Governance Challenges Posed by COVID-19

The Praia City Group on Governance Statistics, established in 2015 under the auspices of the UN Statistical Commission to “contribute to establishing international standards and methods for the compilation of statistics on the major dimensions of governance,” has just published a sequel to its comprehensive Handbook on Governance Statistics. That resource was launched in March 2020 and provided guidelines on producing and compiling official governance statistics. It focused on eight dimensions of governance: non-discrimination and equality; participation; openness; access to and quality of justice; responsiveness; absence of corruption; trust; and safety and security.

The sequel publication looks specifically at the governance challenges posed by COVID-19 in each of these eight areas. This new Praia Group Guidance Note on Governance Statistics in the COVID-19 Era consolidates the most practical and relevant measurement advice, and a few recommended indicators for National Statistical Offices and other governance data producers. Each thematic brief is intentionally selective and focuses on likely “priority governance data needs” of national actors to inform both the immediate response to COVID-19 and medium-term recovery action.

Our guidance keeps in mind the acute operational constraints faced by these actors – such as their greatly reduced mobility for data collection and declining funding for statistical production. This makes the resource applicable not only to the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also to other multidimensional crises that may arise in the future, and that will require a similarly robust governance response.

The Praia Group’s new Guidance Note is a reminder for all of us that information on the quality of governance is a public good, just like information on the health, demographic, or economic profile of a society. This is all the more vital in the COVID-19 era, which has been characterized by a proliferation of mis- and disinformation and has made it hard for policy-makers and the general public to find trustworthy sources and reliable data on which to base political and personal decisions.

The work of the Praia Group is a sign among many that this crisis, disastrous as it is, can also pave the way for innovative and new solutions. Each government can reflect on the kind of public institutions and governance mechanisms we need for our societies to withstand similar shocks in the future, and look to the burgeoning field of governance statistics. Right now, governance data can be used to build institutions back better and to empower the public in demanding the same.

The authors of this guest article are Osvaldo Borges, Ph.D, President of the National Statistical Institute of Cabo Verde and Chair of the Secretariat of the Praia City Group on Governance Statistics; and Malin Herwig, Director a.i., UN Development Programme (UNDP) Oslo Governance Centre.

UNDP is a member of the Praia City Group.

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