Our Common Agenda: A Quick Scan
In this quick scan the teams at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation and Pathfinders share their initial observations and impressions on how Our Common Agenda links to ongoing and planned efforts on peace, justice, inclusion, preventing humanitarian crises and supporting peacebuilding and multilateralism.
By Liv Tørres and Maaike de Langen, with analysis and writing contributed by Sarah Cliffe, Paige Arthur, Karina Gerlach, Leah Zamore, Daniel Mack, Alisa Jimenez and Bojan Francuz
On Friday 10 September, Secretary-General António Guterres presented Our Common Agenda, his response to the request for recommendations, made by UN member states in the 75th anniversary declaration adopted in 2020.
The SG does not mince his words about the problems the world is facing, from the pandemic that is upending our world, conflicts that continue to rage and worsen, and the disastrous effects of a changing climate -famine, floods, fires and extreme heat- that threaten our very existence.
If ever there was a need for global collective action, it is now. Rather than dwell on geopolitical tensions, decades of international failure in Afghanistan, or the weakening of multilateral institutions, Our Common Agenda focuses instead on what we need to accomplish together and the urgency of getting to work.
The most important UN policy document this year, the report is set to shape the SG’s second term and — hopefully — make the United Nations more effective and relevant to people’s lives.
Our Common Agenda
As the secretary-general writes, Our Common Agenda proposes a path forward, centered around a renewal of our social contract, adapted to the challenges of this century, taking into account young people and future generations and complemented by a new global deal.
It is a wide-ranging document, which covers all aspects of life on earth, and even has a few things to say about outer space. Four things stand out:
The social contract at the center.
The secretary-general stresses that now is the time to renew the social contract and underlines that there is a growing disconnect between people and the institutions that serve them. Indeed around the world we see the social contract in peril, and it is of the utmost urgency to transform institutions so that they deliver for people and the planet. Our Common Agenda reiterates the idea that social contracts need to be anchored in human rights and focus on both trust and deliverables.
Building trust is identified as our defining challenge and includes the need to create institutions that listen. We were thrilled to see that the secretary-general heard the call to put people at the center of justice and that he will promote a new vision for the rule of law, building on Sustainable Development Goal 16.
Inclusion, protection, and participation are listed as critical components, and racism, intolerance, and discrimination are specifically recognized. The report urges governments to increase the political inclusion, for example by lowering the age to vote and stand for elected office, strengthening youth participatory bodies, and considering youth labor guarantees.
The new social contract called for in Our Common Agenda focuses on delivering what people need most, including being able to access health care and education, finding decent jobs and affordable housing, and benefitting from social protection when they need it.
In support of this call, we will co-host a high level multi-stakeholder event on Action to Achieve Equality and Inclusion on September 23rd, presenting the evidence for action to deliver these visible results, build solidarity and improve trust.
Shaping the future together with the next generation.
Solidarity with younger and future generations is a prominent part of Our Common Agenda. It contains proposals to give young people a voice at all levels of decision-making, to transform education, ensure the availability of decent jobs for youth, and accelerate progress towards Net Zero. It also lays out how the UN will increase its capacity to think for the longer term and institutionalize the interests of future generations, including through the appointment of a Special Envoy for Future Generations and carving out a role for the Trusteeship Council.
Informing Our Common Agenda was a process of consultations which engaged young people to articulate their own priorities and ideas for the future of international cooperation. Many of their proposals were echoed in the recommendations of the SG, including on education, jobs, and representation, and in his recognition that young people should be the designers of their own futures. Others were compiled in the companion report Our Future Agenda, which sets outs the ideas in more detail and asks world leaders to embrace our challenge to the status quo, while stating plainly it is not our job to agree with you.
Prevention and improved response to crises.
While Our Common Agenda speaks less to conflict and security, it renews the commitment to prevention, a signature issue of the secretary-general’s first term. He deftly weaves it across the report, through social contracts, nationally led, inclusive approaches, and as a positive good that is relevant for all countries. The SG rightly proposes to level up the UN’s forecasting and insight capabilities, even though we are skeptical that producing a Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report once every five years is frequent enough to be of practical use. However, building dedicated capacity for such analysis will be progress.
When it comes to humanitarian crises, Our Common Agenda is in many ways a blueprint for addressing the structural and political inequities that produce and perpetuate them. This is perhaps most notable in the report’s emphasis on the connection between forced displacement and the climate crisis. Whereas recent humanitarian frameworks such as the Global Compact on Refugees have largely ignored climate-induced displacement, Our Common Agenda urges member states to find ways to prevent, protect and resolve situations of environmental displacement.
To facilitate interventions in complex global crises, the SG calls for the creation of an Emergency Platform, which would bring together humanitarian agencies, member states, the UN development system, IFI’s, and civil society. This is an important proposal given the failures of international coordination during the pandemic across the health, economic, social and peace and security domains.
The UN as a platform.
The report is not overly focused on the UN itself as an organization and member states are not the unit of analysis in Our Common Agenda, nor are governments the only actors that it calls on. This is an agenda for the world that focuses on results for people and embraces partnerships with a range of actors and organizations.
It is indeed essential that the international community creates space for people from different sectors and with varying roles and affiliations to contribute to solving today’s most important problems. We’ve argued in the past for the role of cities as a unit of analysis, ambition, and action to drive innovation, including through networks such as Peace in Our Cities.
The SG also notes that reshaping our responses to all forms of violence would more effectively address violence holistically. Pathfinders’ multi-stakeholder movement to Halve Global Violence by 2030 seeks to do just that.
The secretary-general indicates that the UN must provide a platform to shape the future and he envisions the UN not as a bureaucratic, intergovernmental organization with highly protocolized decision-making, but as a platform with formidable convening power that can serve to set universal goals, develop global norms, support collective action, and achieve results in people’s lives the world over.
All in all, the Common Agenda is ambitious and visionary. It contains innovative ideas and actions that aim at bringing us a better, safer and greener future. More than ever before, it considers long-term risks and prioritizes concerns of young people.
We are pleased to see that the key topics we have been highlighting over the years are incorporated in the recommendations. With the UN taking the lead, we have a much better chance of achieving justice for all, halving global violence, and combatting exclusion and inequality.
From ambitions to action
Our Common Agenda sets out high ambitions. Delivering on these ambitions may be the most challenging part of the plan.
Summits as the solution?
The secretary-general proposes four new summits — the Biennial Summit, which is recurring, the Transforming Education Summit in 2022, the Summit of the Future in 2023 and the World Social Summit in 2025. These comes in addition to regular meetings, such as the Second SDG Summit in 2023, the high-level segment of UNGA, the High-Level Political Forum, and many more.
The Biennial Summit is proposed as a meeting between the G20, ECOSOC, the SG and the IFI’s. It is difficult to imagine this being met by anything other than grudging consent amongst the other multilaterals and it is not immediately clear what it would want to achieve.
A summit at the UN consumes immense amounts of energy, time and money, not to mention all the travel which directly contributes to climate change. All the more worrisome that Our Common Agenda is silent on how these summits will be connected to progress towards goals and in what way they will link to national action and results in people’s lives.
A central challenge to the success of Our Common Agenda is therefore whether the UN will be capable to connect these global summits to national implementation in a virtuous cycle: from collecting data and evidence, to innovation, partnerships and collective learning, leveraging international commitments to make significant progress domestically. The UN has much to learn in this respect and it would do well to study experiences of organizations like the Open Government Partnership and vertical global funds like GAVI and The Global Fund.
Measuring what matters.
A prominent but somewhat underdeveloped part of Our Common Agenda deals with measuring and valuing what matters to people and the planet, which points to the well-known shortcomings in what is reflected in countries’ GDP. The SG calls for a collective commitment to complementary measures of progress, most specifically in the areas of environmental-economic accounting and the care and informal economy. This is an excellent area for the UN to focus on, where its global role in terms of standard-setting is clear and it can work with others to deliver results.
In fact, a much broader critique on what we measure and how we ascertain effectiveness is warranted together with a commitment to more data-driven and evidence-based policy making and implementation in the United Nations’ own work, as well as that of member states individually and collectively.
In the areas of peacebuilding and prevention, CIC’s data for peace initiative is a valuable source for policy makers and could help promoting more data-driven and evidence-based working. CIC’s UN Appointments Dashboard tracks the appointment of women to senior UN jobs, including whether they are appointed to positions with real power and authority. In the context of Pathfinders Justice Program, the world’s first estimate of the global justice gap was developed to inspire change and work is ongoing to increase the quality and quantity of people-centered justice data. These are important contributions to measuring what matters.
Our Common Agenda is an urgent call for action. The secretary-general sketches a breakdown and a breakthrough scenario, and stresses that the choice is ours. We agree with the urgency of this call. We support the core directions of the report, the need for a new social contract adapted for the 21st Century, an emphasis on making meaningful change in people’s daily lives, delivering global public goods and protecting the welfare of future generations.
We encourage the secretary-general to focus on the innovative ideas and practical steps working with high ambition coalitions, such as the Justice Action Coalition, Peace in our Cities and the new platform to combat Inequality and Exclusion, that the Pathfinders will support.
Our Common Agenda calls for a different type of multilateralism, more suited to today’s world. A multilateralism that incorporates the views of regional bodies, local authorities, academia, civil society and private sector. This type of dynamic and open collaboration, bringing together a wide range of different actors in a common pursuit of shared goals, is at the very core of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, and CIC’s work more broadly.
We look forward to supporting Our Common Agenda’s emphasis on prevention and renewed multilateralism, as well as working together to achieve measurable reductions across all forms of violence, injustice, and inequality.