The UN and Sustainable Development: Present and Future

My role in the United Nations (UN) for the past ten months, as a writer for the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), has been to report on everything that is going on in the sustainable development realm of this international body. UN sustainable development actions have exploded since the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, and it has been interesting to observe where the agreements that were made at that conference have come since June 2012.

The UNGA is currently in the process of working through many of the tasks that world leaders gave them at Rio+20, and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is in the process of being “strengthened” in order to be a more effective coordinator of UN activities and a better integrator of the three dimensions of sustainable development. The UN Secretary-General has made sustainable development one of his key priorities, and we see this becoming the central focus of the next UN post-2015 development agenda.

Since my job places me in the actual negotiation rooms of the UN General Assembly and ECOSOC, attempting to understand the complex processes that are going on, I find myself in quite a privileged, though frustrating, position. Especially given my unique position as a young person with such unbridled access to the UN, I am able to see just how convoluted many of these political processes are. I witness the planet’s long-term interests, and the interests of future generations down the line, often held hostage to combating states and political agendas that do not work to safeguard the interests of the future.

So, what is the UN doing right now on Sustainable Development? Because many people outside the UN world cannot pay attention to the myriad of activities going on inside, here is a brief overview of where the sustainable development activities stand right now.

- At the end of June 2013, the General Assembly reached an agreement on the establishment of the new High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF)- the creation of which was mandated at the Rio+20 conference and delegates spent the past five months negotiating for in the GA’s second committee. You can read IISD’s overview of this new establishment here. Though this was intended by many to be a new body to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), that is not exactly what member states created. Instead, we will have a series of meetings on topics of sustainable development: at a high-level of heads of state and governments every four years in the General Assembly, and at the ministerial level each year in ECOSOC.

- The HLPF will be tasked with the implementation of the UN sustainable development agenda- an agenda that has not yet been fully outlined. This is where the process to definethe post-2015 development agenda, including inter-governmentally negotiated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is vitally important. The entire UN system is currently in a period of stock-taking, examining the diverse set of issues that need global attention and that could be considered for a new sustainable agenda. You may have seen the report of the Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Post-2015, offering recommendations for the structure of the next agenda, but important reports have also been released by the private sector (through the UN Global Compact) and the academic community (through the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network). The UN Development Group has also coordinated a huge series of national consultations for people to contribute on what issues are most important to them, and a series of Global Thematic Consultations were held on eleven different issue areas (such as governance, energy, inequalities, and food security) online and around the world.

- Meanwhile, an Open-Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals(OWG SDGs) in the General Assembly (OWG) is hosting regular meetings to think through many of these issues, and will begin to examine them as future goals. This is no easy task to narrow down the list, to create a new, effective framework of a development agenda, or to think how this will all be implemented, but many of our governments have accepted this task admirably (at least, for now).

- Finally, because we really shouldn’t think about any of these issues without also responsibly considering how they will be paid for, the UN has spent the last year negotiating the member state and regional composition of a Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing… which is soon to begin meeting to discuss means of implementation.

These complex processes, all aimed at creating a better future for the planet, are ambitious and energetic. But where do the future generations that will inhabit this planet actually come in? This question can be answered either optimistically, that future generations are at the center of this entire sustainable development agenda, or, realistically, as they are not specifically present at all. Clearly the post-2015 agenda, which looks ahead to at least the next fifteen years by describing the goals we want to accomplish by 2030, is concerned with the kind of future that we want to leave our youngest and future generations. The environment, economy, cultures, and social well-being that the generations of 2030 will know are all up for discussion right now.

But where is the presence of these generations? Youth, which many states consider to be “future generations of citizens,” are largely absent from the negotiating rooms- save a few shining and hard-won examples. And someone responsible for ONLY representing the interests of future generations has not even been given a formal consideration.

How in the world can we leave the interests and choices of the future out of the conversation, when we are trying explicitly to develop a better world for them? Will the short-term, narrow, political interests of countries dominate the agenda that the UN sets for the coming years? And will future generations be held hostage to the decisions that we make in 2013, 2014, and 2015, just because their long-term interests were not present in a few closed conference rooms?

This is why I, and many organizations around the world, believe that a High-Level Representative for Future Generations is vitally important for the UN sustainable development process.

At the Rio+20 Conference, the Major Group of Children and Youth was passionately organized around this governance proposal, and it even gained broad support from Member States and civil society over the course of the meeting, but it was unceremoniously gutted from the outcome document in the eleventh hour. This proposal seeks to create a High Level Representative within the UN System that can help bring coherence between bodies and processes on the representation of future generations. By helping to ensure that policy implementation considers the long-term interests of future generations along with short-term concerns, this Representative will provide accountability in the international system that our future so desperately needs.

A High-Level Representative for Future Generations will also strengthen public participation in UN activities by creating a specific point-person for civil society interests and by increasing outreach activities to the wider global public on the topic of sustainable development (fitting in nicely to the marketing of the Sustainable Development Goals, I believe). As the UN is engaged in these broad activities to reform the governance of sustainable development, no area needs more innovative thinking than the long-term institutional oversight for the future. I sincerely hope that the new High Level Political Forum will be strong enough to actually implement the three dimensions of sustainable development, and a High-Level Representative can be central to this mission.

The UN itself has identified a need for more coherence between sustainability initiatives. I believe that the pillar of long-term thinking and future consideration should be at the heart of these UN integration efforts. A particular point person tasked with this specific role will be necessary to accomplish this difficult goals within the UN system. We must envision the facilitating and problem-solving functions that a Representative can have, and why the UN so desperately needs these roles to be filled. A High-Level Representative can not only aid civil society, but can increase the effectiveness of the work that Member States are engaged in every day, and can increase the productive conversation between these different actors. Working through even just a small office, the High-Level Representative can focus on bringing together UN activities, coordinating actions, creating partnerships for implementation, and planning for the future in a more long-term and holistic manner.

As you can see, this will be a very different and innovative addition to the international arena. The current UN mode of engaging and speaking to public citizens, especially to youth and to the interests of future generations, has been limited at best. Important figures like the UN Special Envoy for Youth are necessary, but not sufficient, to our aims of truly creating a better, more sustainable earth. Young people are not just calling for a single person in the UN that is their age, but for the entire UN system to better deal with the problems that will face them for generations to come. This is not a problem of optics and PR, but a governance issue that can only be solved by well-planned and sufficiently resourced institutional designs. The Special Envoy for Youth has done a great job of championing youth concerns internationally, but a Representative of Future Generations would be a role focused on the long-term implementation of sustainable development for the benefit of all generations.

Especially given the enhanced role that Major Groups and stakeholders were allotted in the creation of the new HLPF, and their importance to implementing any agreed-upon post-2015 development agenda, a point-person within the UN that can speak specifically with them is of the utmost importance. Together, the High Level Representative for Future Generations and the civil society of our world can hold our Member States accountable for implementing the sustainable development commitments that they are making now for the future.

The endless energy that young people have shown for promoting a role like this has not been surprising, for we are perhaps more intimately connected to the future ahead. We were “future generations” ourselves not too long ago, and the children that we have will be facing even tougher situations than our generation today. Young people need to be included in these conversations and need to be offered a formal avenue for participation in making decisions that will affect their futures. After all, young people must envision their entire lifetimes ahead, and therefore can better represent the interests of future generations that will follow us.

We must listen to the diverse thoughts and visions for the future of all people, especially as our generations step up to take on the incredible problems that are facing the world. There is no better representation of intergenerational solidarity than the mutual teaching and learning that exists between people of all age groups- so let us take these new ideas forward together, and build lasting changes for the generations to come. I hope that my generation will be able raise future generations with the ability to imagine and care for the future, whether or not we inherit such a world ourselves.

By Kate Offerdahl, Human Impacts Institute Advisory Board Member and Former Human Impacts Institute Intern

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