The United Nations’ sustainable development summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda will be held in New York between Friday and Sunday. Unlike the preceding Millennium Development Goals, these policies will demand changes to both poor and rich nations. Malta will be no exception.
In the run-up to the UN meeting, the reputable Bertelsmann Stiftung produced a set of sustainable governance indicators for 2015 of 41 EU and OECD countries. This includes rankings for policy performance, democracy and governance through pre-established scholarly criteria.
Overall, the 41-country report notes that many states have gradually overcome the economic and financial crises but that the social situation, particularly in southern Europe, is extremely worrying. Conversely, the Nordic countries, Switzerland and Germany are highlighted as having the best sustainable policy outcomes.
The report notes some other interesting performances. For example, Estonia is a high-flier in policy performance and democracy whereas New Zealand is praised for its long-term governance orientation and quality of democracy. On the other hand, Australia and the US rank quite low in terms of policy performance, though they rank quite high in terms of governance and democracy.
As far as democratic governance goes, Hungary and Turkey occupy the bottom two places due to deteriorating quality. Some other notable low rankers include Japan, South Korea and Spain.
When compared to the other 40 countries in the list, Malta does not fare very well, though its position improved marginally compared to 2014. It ranks 31st in terms of policy performance, 38th in terms of democracy and 31st in terms of governance.
Specifically, the policy performance index is led by Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This index refers to economic development, environmental protection and social policies. Mexico, Cyprus and Greece are in the bottom three positions.
Finland leads the democracy index, which covers countries’ democratic order and rule of law. Sweden and Norway come second and third.
Only Romania, Turkey and Hungary are in worse positions than Malta.
As regards the governance index, Sweden comes first, followed by Finland and Norway. Croatia, Romania and Cyprus occupy the last three positions.
This index assesses governments’ capacity to steer and implement policies as well as capacity for reform.
Some challenges have been persisting for years while others seem to be more pronounced than ever
If one takes a closer look at Malta’s country-specific report, note is taken of the country’s status as a working democracy and of reforms that were implemented after the 2013 general election. These include the extension of rights for minorities and the Whistleblower Act.
However, the report states that many good governance issues remain. These include the Prime Minister’s “sole responsibility of appointing judges”, “allegations of political discrimination” and restricted access to government information.
The Malta report adds that “Malta is also the only European State with only two political parties represented in Parliament and there are no thresholdsto assist smaller parties in gaining parliamentary representation”. This results in an “overall perception that politics is a zero-sum game”.
The report also flags the “tendency by governments to prioritise political over economic considerations”, which “can have a negative economic impact”. At the same time, though, Malta has a resilient labour market and a low unemployment rate and the introduction of various social measures is praised in the report.
Yet, the “high risk of poverty among the unemployed and the elderly suggest that welfare benefits and pensions are not sufficient”.
Reference is also made to financial challenges in Malta’s healthcare and pensions systems, to “rampant” tax evasion, “dwindling water resources” and restricted strategic planning.
The report highlights the need to give more importance to alternative energy sources and to reduce dependence on the construction industry.
Clear integration policies, which “so far have been conspicuously absent”, are also mentioned, as is the need to have more public trust in the public service “by pursuing a path of merit and transparency”.
Any objective observer should commend the authors of Malta’s report, namely Godfrey Pirotta, Isabelle Calleja and Cesar Colino, who coordinated the work.
This is even more so when one notes that the strengths and weaknesses in Malta’s governance are consistently highlighted by other academics, by civil society organisations and by the independent press.
Some challenges have been persisting for years while others seem to be more pronounced than ever.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.