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By Giovanna Kuele and Ilona Szabo

The world is facing interconnected and complex global challenges—from worsening climate change, pandemic outbreaks, and deepening inequality to massive digital vulnerabilities and nuclear proliferation. To address these and other challenges, the United Nations is seeking to reinvigorate multilateralism through the newly launched Secretary-General’s report ‘Our Common Agenda.’ The report calls for a wholesale paradigm shift to accelerate international cooperation.

Progress will only come from a sense of trust and care with young people and between wealthier and poorer countries.

The proposals outlined in the report, released on 10 September 2021, do not emerge out of a vacuum. They were crafted on the basis of consultations conducted throughout 2021 with UN Member States, thought leaders, young people, civil society, and the UN system. One part of the consultative process was led by the Igarapé Institute and 30 of our civil society partners, a network that stretches across the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Institute deployed a digital platform to crowdsource ideas and generated over 520 proposals from more than 1,750 participants in 147 countries.

‘Our Common Agenda’ lays out a range of action-oriented proposals to reorient the UN as a platform to drive collective action on global goods challenges where it can add the most value. The pitch differs from the most seminal proposal of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ‘In Larger Freedom,’ which envisioned the UN taking the lead in multiple fronts at the same time. Over 16 years later, UN Secretary-General António Guterres sets a bold albeit pragmatic vision of where the UN can and should step in: socio-economic issues, critical global commons, and peace and security.

The Secretary-General envisions the UN as the convener of global economic governance. To this end, he proposes a biennial strategic global economic dialogue and a World Social Summit in 2025. This builds on past recommendations, including by the Stiglitz Commission (2011), former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s ‘An Agenda for Development’ (1994), and ideas put forward previously by Guterres himself, when as President of the Socialist International (1999-2005), he advocated for an Economic Security Council to ensure better coordination between international financial institutions and UN agencies.

The UN also seeks to play a role as a vital platform for managing tricky global commons issues. This is consistent with the organization’s 75-year-old mission. “Saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as stated in the UN Charter, nowadays means protecting the global commons (the sea, the atmosphere, Antarctica, outer space, and the internet) while delivering on global public goods (e.g., global health, information, science, and peace).

Guterres’ report argues that real progress will only be achieved by deepening solidarity and a sense of trust and care with young people and between societies in wealthier and poorer countries. To this end, his proposals for the creation of a Special Envoy for Future Generations, a UN General Assembly Declaration on Future Generations, and a high-level advisory group to provide research on global commons and global public goods could help signal a genuine shift towards future-focused policymaking, and enable more buy-in for fundamental change.

Over the long term, UN Member States need to initiate an intergovernmental process to discuss the report’s recommendations, such as repurposing the Trusteeship Council for the management of global commons. The report recommends convening a Summit of the Future to build momentum for protecting critical global commons. Historically, major events that assemble global and grassroots leaders such as the 2005 World Summit have proven to be catalysts for progressive change.

Protecting the global commons also means thinking creatively about how to address mega-threats. Unless there is real action on decarbonization and nuclear non-proliferation, efforts on behalf of future generations will be jeopardized. Learning from the lessons of COVID-19, the report proposes a framework for the Secretary-General to convene a multi-stakeholder platform to readily bring together the key actors, including civil society and private sector, in response to a complex global crisis.

In addition to the above proposals, the Secretary-General intends to launch a New Agenda for Peace to limit strategic instability, increase foresight and prevention capacities, and address broader security risks. In the peace and security realm, the report offers practical and pragmatic recommendations that fall within the scope of the UN. Ultimately, it is up to the organization’s Member States to make progress on more tricky issues such as Security Council reform and scaling up the Peacebuilding Commission.

It is worth repeating that many of these actions will be irrelevant unless climate action is drastically ramped up. The report could have taken an even bolder stance on mitigation and adaptation efforts, which the Secretary-General has vocally championed. Getting to net zero by 2050, moving faster towards a green economy, and clamping down on environmental crimes are mentioned, but need to be bolder. To be sure, the heavy lift on these actions resides primarily with States (and the private sector) rather than the UN (or civil society).

Ultimately, ‘Our Common Agenda’ expresses a vision of a global system that accounts for future generations and embraces inclusion. It kicks off a process to reinvigorate multilateralism, in which the UN is an impact hub for global economic governance and global commons issues.

It is only by shifting the paradigm in this direction that we can genuinely accelerate more legitimate and impactful global cooperation. And for this to happen, all States need to be on board.

The authors of this guest article are Giovanna Kuele and Ilona Szabo. Giovanna Kuele is a Brazilian political scientist and researcher at the Igarapé Institute. Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is President of the Igarapé Institute. 

To access the report of Igarapé’s consultations, go to:http://igarape.org.br/our-common-agenda