March 6, 2024

Is the Summit of the Future a “Hail Mary” for the United Nations?

Tetet Nera-Lauron

The world is in the throes of enduring polycrisis of the climate emergency, the post-pandemic global economic slowdown and unsustainable levels of government debt in many global South countries. Capitalism’s champions would have us believe that a modest recovery is taking place, but the reality is that obscene poverty and rising inequality remain persistent issues. All the while, the world’s ten richest men doubled their fortunes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four years ago at the height of the pandemic, governments resolved to “build back better,” using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a guidepost. However, the excitement over the promise of “leaving no one behind” through the SDGs continues to dissipate as results have been uninspiring. It is crunch time for the SDGs, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development comes across as a floundering business plan, rather than a blueprint for transformation that it claims to be. It is in this context that the UN is holding a Summit of the Future to address some of these contradictions. What are the origins and goals of this initiative, and what outcomes can we hope from it?

A Full-Court Press for the SDGs

A few months into the pandemic in 2020, member states tasked UN Secretary General António Guterres to come up with recommendations to address current and future global challenges. The UNSG presented his Our Common Agenda (OCA) report in September 2021. This acknowledged the SDGs as badly off-track, and highlighted the need to “turbocharge” SDG implementation and to reform global governance arrangements. The Secretary General called for a Summit of the Future (SoTF) in 2024 to build a new global consensus on what the future should look like, and how this can happen. It aims to reaffirm the UN Charter, boost implementation of existing commitments, agree on solutions to new challenges, and restore trust in the multilateral system.

The SoTF, in effect, is the ultimate SDG rescue plan. It aims to create the conditions that will enable Agenda 2030 to be a success. It is hoped to bring about renewed faith in global governance institutions – especially the United Nations, which it badly needs after severe setbacks in credibility and efficacy.

Last year’s SDG Summit  was part of the preparatory process for the SoTF. While it restated the obvious shortfalls of the SDGs, the Summit lacked actionable items to back the call for “bold, ambitious, accelerated, just and transformative actions.” The UNSG appealed for support for his SDG fast-track plan, which included raising funds for a USD500 billion stimulus package. Such a stimulus would ensure that developed countries achieve their still-unmet aid targets, accelerating jobs and social protection, and putting money into the Loss and Damage Fund to support frontline communities from developing countries recover and rebuild from severe climate impacts.

Work on the SoTF began in 2023, with preparatory meetings and consultations with UN member states, regional groupings and different stakeholders. The UNSG’s office produced 11 policy briefs that outlined proposals on a wide range of issues such as transforming education, youth engagement, a New Agenda for Peace, setting up an Emergency Platform, a new metrics of development, governance of digital technologies, reform of the international financial architecture, outer space and achieving a revitalized UN 2.0. The UNSG even set up a High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism that produced a report on likely reforms to international institutions.

All these will converge into a “Pact for the Future” – foreseen as a succinct action-oriented outcome document agreed by consensus through intergovernmental negotiations. This, however, means that the Pact will not get into very granular details even if there is agreement on massive reforms in global governance.

Co-facilitators were named for the Pact of the Future process (Germany and Namibia), as well as the separate negotiation tracks for the Global Digital Compact (Sweden and Zambia), and a Declaration on Future Generations (Jamaica and the Netherlands).

Secretary-General António Guterres meets with the Co-Facilitators of the “Summit of the Future”: Antje Leendertse, Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations, and Neville Melvin Gertze, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Namibia to the United Nations. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

Not Quite a Slam Dunk

The Pact for the Future Zero Draft’s presentation on January 29, 2024 signaled the start of intergovernmental negotiations that will run until a final text is agreed and adopted in September. Contributions from more than 80 member states and around 500 civil society and other stakeholders resulted in the current 20-page draft. This will be the basis for negotiations and revisions until the agreement and adoption of a final Pact by consensus.

The draft Pact is an ambiguous combination of several disparate streams, each having their own chapter:

  1. Sustainable Development and Financing for Development;
  2. International Peace and Security;
  3. Science, technology and innovation (STI) and Digital Cooperation;
  4. Youth and Future Generations; and
  5. Transforming Global Governance.

The only thing that seemingly brings these varying tracks together is the mention of a “new, inclusive and networked multilateralism” that gives more space to the corporate and business sectors as well as other actors like academia and civil society in global governance.

The Zero Draft restates commitment to a number of previously agreed international principles, treaties and goals on the economy, environment and development. Member states generally received it as a “good starting point” for negotiations. Developing countries raised some points critical of the draft, foremost of which is in the UN’s failure to address the violations of the UN Charter that the world is witnessing in Gaza.

Pakistan (for the Like-Minded group of Developing Countries) said a preliminary reading of the draft showed many of developing countries” positions have been “overlooked, diluted or presented superficially.” Poverty eradication and combatting hunger, which are important for the global South, have seemingly been added only as an afterthought.

Cuba called for the UN to push for major reforms to the international financial architecture (IFA) in the same way that it stood for decolonization decades ago in the understanding that it was a “moral imperative to bury an unjust system.” However, there are no concrete proposals on the exact way forward for such reform.

Several member states also cautioned that the negotiations for the Pact should not duplicate negotiations in other ongoing processes. For instance, intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) on Security Council reforms are already underway and must not be included in discussions on the Pact. Similarly, as debates on international cooperation on the climate and environment are happening in other UN spaces, their outcomes should just feed into the Pact.

Although negotiations on the final Pact is exclusively among member states, different groups will be able to provide comments and inputs at dedicated consultations that the co-facilitators will convene. This approach of a “networked multilateralism” is a Trojan horse, given the growing trend of the corporate capture of public decision-making spaces. Under the guise of promoting cooperation and partnership with different actors, multistakeholderism promotes the illusion that governments (duty bearers), people (rights holders), and corporations are equal actors in development. This emphasis on multistakeholder processes is dangerous. While many members states pay lip service to considering the inputs of civil society, it is the lobbyists, representing corporations that that cause and profit from irreparable harm to people and planet, who actually have substantial influence in the outcomes of multilateral decision-making spaces.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

The SoTF could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to mend eroded trust in international cooperation. This hype over an event places impossibly high expectations on a single summit. In its almost eight decades of existence, the UN has had more than its share of high profile gatherings that resulted in very little, save for the nice speeches that leaders are so fond of delivering before the world stage.

It is hard to define what a successful SoTF would look like. Nor will it be easy to convince the more critical sectors of the international community why involvement in the SoTF is important. There are many reasons why we need to take a hard look at the current state of multilateralism.  Whether the SoTF can usher in a new age of international cooperation is yet to be seen.

There are deep geopolitical challenges and divides between governments from the south and the north that continue to weigh down the United Nations. However, the UN remains an important arena of struggle for setting norms that would guide societies, economies and institutions as they relate with each other. There is a silver lining for the UN with recent agreements reached on important issues such as protecting biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions, a mechanism to provide finance for loss and damage due to climate impacts, and a global chemicals framework to name a few. Admittedly, these incremental changes are not enough to deliver a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable future.

As an initial trust-building act, the SoTF and the Pact for the Future should reaffirm previous promises, especially those on aid and climate finance. It follows, too, that where there is already an agreed international norm, the Pact should uphold higher standards and not contradict democratically made decisions. For instance, the hard won obligation of developed countries to provide funding for adaptation is presented in a way as stated in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is presented in a way that actually reduces ambition. The Zero Draft only call for a “recognition of significant adaptation finance needs of developing countries,” erasing the obligation and the source of this. It also does not help build goodwill when aid is conflated with climate finance despite an agreement at COP 15 that resources to support developing countries” climate action is “new and additional.”

In order to realize profound systemic transformations, any discussion on the future of international cooperation must affirm a courageous commitment to undertake appropriate actions. The course correction needed should focus not only on addressing new and emerging challenges, but also on righting the historical injustices of colonial extraction and oppression.

Democratization of global governance lies at the heart of developing countries” call to reshape international cooperation as they currently lack real influence at the UN and in other international organizations, where developed countries led by the US and Europe dominate decision-making. A Pact for the Future that fails to produce transformative actions in this respect would mean that the most important decisions about humanity and our planet would not take place in the UN, as they should be, but in spaces where the global North exercise undue influence such as the G7, OECD, and the IMF-WB.

If these concerns are addressed, it is possible for the SoTF to result in outcomes that might just succeed in restoring the trust of governments in each other, and in the ability of the multilateral system to provide solutions to the some of the most pressing challenges in the world today. It is possible for the Pact for the Future to be an important moment that brings about a new set of norms and principles embraced by the international system to guide the further development of institutions and mechanisms that would make a meaningful impact.

With the future of humanity and the planet on the line, anyone who believes in the power of transformative change can not afford to throw in the towel in the SoTF. As a moment for setting the tone and direction on some of the most critical discussions in global governance, the Summit must be held to a high standard and shaping its agenda and outcomes remains a priority for global South governments and civil society alike.

Tetet Lauron lives in the Philippines and works as a consultant to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation New York Office.