SI's Plans to Support 'Our Common Agenda'

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This post outlines SI’s strategic thinking around and current plan to engage with Our Common Agenda (OCA). The plan was developed in July 2022 and includes deliverables until Q2 2023. The plan will be updated after our internal Q3 strategy 2022 meeting.

Our Common Agenda: an opportunity for long-term governance

Our Common Agenda (OCA) is a report published by the UN Office of the Secretary General (SG) that lays out a vision and action points for the UN system and its member states for the duration of Guterres’ second mandate (2022-2027). OCA is the SG’s  response to a request made by the UN General Assembly (GA) to set a vision forward. Resolution 76/6 gave the SG permission to move forward, requesting intergovernmental consultations with UN member states, which were concluded with a speech by the SG and summarized by the President of the General Assembly (PGA) in this letter.

In terms of framing and agenda-setting, OCA posits that the world is at a crucial point in history, facing either breakthrough through progress and cooperation or breakdown through existential risk and nationalism. It aims to further the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda and sets the tone for upcoming discussions about its renewal. Because OCA was published in 2021, COVID-19 and pandemics are very prominent in the report. We can expect that recent geopolitical tensions will contextualize OCA discussions more in a security framing.

It is important to note that OCA’s success depends heavily on its adoption by UN agencies and member states. First, UN agencies - which can be fully independent from the secretariat - need to align with the SG’s proposals. This alignment, while plausible, is not a given: OCA proposes several reforms and new entities whose work is likely to compete with existing ones. Second, all proposals depend on financial and political support from member states. While OCA has been adopted by the GA, no clear country champions have stepped up yet. The lack of enthusiastic member state support suggests that current affairs will likely slow down the process and many states might request changes. For example, Russia has already expressed worries that the agenda of the Summit for the Future might be set by selected elites and not member states. 

SG proposals are always constrained by institutional inertia and current affairs. For example, despite the similarity to OCA, then-SG Ban Ki-moon’s 2013 report “International solidarity and the needs of future generations” did not receive much attention from member states. This might be understandable, given that the UN system was already facing a monumental task under similar framing: developing the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - set out in a 2012 GA resolution titled “The future we want”.

Building on Ban’s report and the success of the SDGs in streamlining sustainability policy across all sectors all around the globe, SG Antonio Guterres’ has managed to clear a previously missed hurdle for future generations: OCA has been adopted as an intergovernmental process by the GA. OCA thus holds the promise of tackling a reform of the UN system toward multilateral structures that drive consideration of the long term across all levels of governance; ideally, catalyzing greater attention to future-proofed policymaking also on the part of member states.

Despite the typical contrast of lofty ambitions and at best incremental progress, OCA could become a major catalyst for disproportionate policy change, if well-resourced and supported. OCA has several advantages over other UN agendas: it lays out an action-oriented plan with GA approval to progress on practical issues that are hindering long-term governance. It also appears to benefit from an unusual level of willingness on behalf of the SG to devote financial, human and political resources to its implementation. Finally, the shared experience of intersecting global crises has created an unusually strong impetus for global governance reform. The next hurdle is to support representatives from the global south whose underresourced governments have implicitly been tasked with speaking for future generations.

We recommend actors who care about future generations to support OCA processes because:

  1. It offers an unprecedented opportunity: out of 69 entry points, 15 are directly relevant to long-term governance. With concrete proposals for future generations and its consideration of existential risks, OCA offers unusually fertile ground for international efforts to secure posterity.
  2. It will create path dependencies: if successful, OCA will lead to the creation of new processes (e.g. Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report), institutions (e.g. Futures Lab), and policy (e.g. Global Digital Compact) which will durably support future generations over decades. If unsuccessful, key framings or recommendations on existential risk and future generations might become diluted, politicized, stigmatized, or instrumentalized for other ends.

Update to our theory of change

Our initial theory of change was designed to start engaging with OCA processes and sketch deliverables that would likely provide value. Four months later, thanks to rapid progress, SI has moved to a different situation and is now well connected to the UN staff in charge of delivering several proposals related to long-term governance. We can therefore formulate a more specific theory of change based on our refined understanding and the demands we received.

Our goals related to Our Common Agenda are the following:

  1. Overall aim: improve long-term survival and flourishing by successfully leveraging OCA as a vector of narrative and policy development for inclusion of future generations and x-risk mitigation.
  2. Specific aims:
  • Preserve and improve future generations and existential risk narrative by avoiding its dilution and contributing substantial input.
  • Ensure relevant OCA proposals succeed by contributing to their design, socialization and implementation.
  • Make sure that both, existential-risk-related and future generations-related proposals, inform one another to avoid superficial treatment of future generations on the one hand, and neglect of x-risk on the other.

Our approach is to both pull and push:

  1. Pull: we design our activities based on OCA proposals which offer entry points for our engagement. This allows us to reverse-engineer our planning and outputs such that we can be maximally useful to UN agencies and member-states. This work will often result in providing reports and briefings to the relevant proposals.
  2. Push: we identify opportunities within the future generations and existential risk field to translate into OCA processes, and we also proactively work with UN officials and member-states to support them in understanding the benefits of these opportunities. This work will often result in organizing coordination retreats, dinners with key individuals, and parallel briefings.

Our tactics are twofold and feed into each other:

  1. Provide expert input on existential risk, future generations and institutional design through written submissions, studies, briefings, retreats and more. 
  2. Foster diplomatic support for future-oriented ideas by member-states, NGO and other stakeholders by briefing them and coordinating their engagement through bilateral meetings, retreats, and more.

For more detail and comments, see this document.