​​Safeguarding future generations

Cat Tully Writes: I was delighted to join the second in a series of dialogues with UN member states and observers to engage on the United Nations Secretary General’s (UNSG) Our Common Agenda Policy Brief.

In my presentation, I made two key points:

1) that exploring why safeguarding the interest of future generations is (maybe counterintuitively) an urgent agenda to act on now and why the UNSG’s policy brief is so crucial; and

2) I identified three ways to deepen the commitments to do so in the policy brief. 

The need for action

For the first time, we are realising the long term consequences of our actions on climate and technology, both for current generations and for those not yet born. We see weak signals of future conflicts already playing out around us, e.g. the AI letter in the media, in the streets around pensions, youth and environmental activism, and so on. There is an urgent need for action, but we only have a narrow window of opportunity to address these challenges.

We have seen some exciting and innovative initiatives in response.  These range from political commitments from Presidents championing intergenerational solidarity, judicial activism, new risk registers in civil services, and new forms of intergenerational engagement with citizens. However these innovations do not go far enough and are fragile. They are often vulnerable to changes in government priorities or budget constraints.  What’s missing is cross-cutting political narratives showing that social justice today works hand in hand with fairness for future generations, not against.

The UN’s proposals

The UN has published a policy brief ‘To Think and Act for Future Generations’. It includes proposals on practical steps to safeguard the interests of future generations, including a Future Generations Declaration and the appointment of a Special Envoy.  These recommendations can be transformative in ensuring the rights of future generations at a global level.

The approach is grounded in evidence. Our research on ‘Features of effective systemic foresight in governments around the world’ indicates four ingredients for a sustained focus on the longer-term:

1) a clear inclusive high-level narrative;

2) a centre of excellence ;

3) a forum for peer-learning and building capability and

4) the practice of policy making integrating strategic foresight.

The proposals in the Policy Brief align with this best practice. There is Now an opportunity for all UN member states to influence a higher ambition and early commitment to protect the interest of future citizens.

Making them stronger

We can also go further. Focusing on future generations as a cross-cutting factor in all policy agendas can help accelerate Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) delivery at national and multilateral levels. I outlined three ways to achieve this:

  • Harness the power of asking the question “which generation is paying and who benefits?” when a policy is designed. Evidence shows that citizens and politicians support fair policies for future generations. But there is a data gap as well as a constituency gap. By asking distributional questions, we can illuminate these gaps and provide incentives for people to take action towards achieving their stated goals.
  • Consider future generations as a cross-cutting factor across all policy agendas of all UN summits, especially into the SDG Summit, Summit of Future and other social causes. In the upcoming World Public Sector Report 2023, my chapter focuses on “Operationalizing strategic foresight to better support governments in managing SDG trade-offs and synergies in the post-COVID context.” The chapter suggests that a focus on foresight and future generations contributes to accelerating adoption of SDG delivery at both national level and multilateral level. It could also support the integration of the 17 individual goals in the “new approach” that’s promised in the introduction to the 2030 Agenda.
  • Put citizens at the centre of the discussion.  Inclusive intergenerational foresight dialogues can connect short-term challenges to long-term thinking, recognise diverse knowledge, and engage peripheral and youth voices for transformative power.

There is no doubt that protecting the rights and interests of future generations is the responsibility of those living today. The UN Secretary General’s Policy Brief outlines a route that can lead towards positive social transformation globally. However safeguarding the interests of future generations needs action now. An early Declaration and the appointment of a Special Envoy are just the first steps.

Adopting these three recommendations on accountability, integration and citizen dialogue to deepen the Policy Brief proposals can help to drive the systemic change required.