By Rubén Escalante Hasbún, one of Global Citizen’s Global Policy and Advocacy team, and El Salvador’s former Ambassador to the UN.
A few short months ago, in September 2021, a new report called “Our Common Agenda” came into the world. Frankly, despite its significance, most people on our planet will never hear about it, and will never care about reading it.
So why should you? Because this report outlines a vision for our common future, and it’s being discussed right now by the UN. As the saying goes, knowledge is power — and if we don’t actively inform ourselves about these ongoing global conversations, then we will never have the power to help shape them.
The truth is, most new global ideas continue to be discussed behind closed doors, by the government elites who do read reports like Our Common Agenda, who bring them into reality, or who block them when their narrow interests are on the line.
So knowing the contents of reports like Our Common Agenda, following the ongoing conversations around them, and getting opinionated about the visions they paint of the future empowers us all to play a more active role in our societies, and hold our governments to account when it comes to respecting and improving our human rights.
That’s why I’m here to get you up to speed on what the Our Common Agenda report is all about, where it’s come from, and what world leaders are saying about it. Let’s get stuck in.
First, some background. In 2020, the UN turned 75, and global leaders back then decided on a series of priorities for its future — 12 of them in total, covering everything from protecting our planet, to promoting peace, to centering women and girls, to listening to and working with “youth”, and being prepared (after being caught off-guard by the pandemic).
These global leaders then asked the Secretary-General of the UN for his ideas on how to move these important priorities forward. One year later, in September 2021, that’s when “Our Common Agenda” was published, essentially laying out what the Secretary-General came up with.
Skip to today, and now the 194 member states of the UN are discussing which of these ideas they like and which they don’t.
This document can be seen as a renewed push, an attempt to move us forward in light of the past two years of the pandemic and the urgent need to step up climate efforts. It can be seen as a catalyst to motivate global actors to take action to make progress towards achieving the UN’s Global Goals — 17 goals that act as a roadmap to end extreme poverty and its systemic causes — with ever-increasing urgency as the 2030 deadline to achieve these goals draws closer.
Some of what is included in the Our Common Agenda report we’ve seen before — from climate action to empowerment of women and girls — and they absolutely need to be there. Other ideas are new and revolutionary, like proposing universal access to internet be considered a basic human right (like food, education, and health); and the need to define for the first time a list of “global public goods” where finance and global governance is urgently needed (I’m not intending to suggest possible candidates for this list, but we can think of the open seas, the atmosphere and the oxygen in it, global pandemic response, etc.). The Secretary-General also heard the call to put people at the center of justice in this new vision for the rule of law, building on Global Goal 16 for peace, justice, and strong institutions.
If you read my last Global Citizen article — all about my experiences as a diplomat from El Salvador seeing firsthand the path of the UN Global Goal 16 into the Global Goal agenda back in 2015 — you’ll remember me highlighting that access to justice, peace, and strong institutions is key to actually bringing about development that is sustainable, no matter where you live.
What’s most striking about the Our Common Agenda report, however, is the underlying tone: the realization that the global experiences of the last few years have placed us all together at a crossroads, between breakdown (getting climate change, development, the pandemic, wrong) and breakthrough (getting all of that right). What is striking also and is something that takes us back to the ever present importance of Global Goals 16: the reality that trust is broken. Trust in what? In ourselves as a collective.
You’ve probably heard about the “social contract” (I remember it well from high school and university). I will not try to explain what Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about this in the 18th century (lest he toss and turn in his grave at me butchering his ideas) but the basic concept is that in a group of hundreds, thousands, and millions, a “contract” is needed between the state and the people. The most basic oversimplification of this is “you pay taxes, you get public services”. However, in the face of the global challenges of the 21st century and the universal extension of our 7.9 billion-soul global village, this takes new dimensions.
Trust has to be regained, by states, by politicians, from the most local to the most global of institutions, so that the solutions we need can include us all, and change can be brought about effectively.
This of course takes many forms, and actually Our Common Agenda is based exactly on the premise of identifying those actions and processes that can get us there. Among governments themselves, establishing trust is already challenging. However, real trust cannot be achieved without participation of people, without the ownership that comes from letting your voice be heard and be actively taken into account, no matter your age, if you are urban or rural, your gender, or where you are from. To put it simply, “leaving no one behind”.
To achieve this, justice and legal empowerment are critical. Grassroots justice defenders are doing this work from the bottom-up; they’re equipping people and communities to demand accountability from their governments and ensure that laws on the books are realized in practice. Real trust will develop when people feel heard and can hold their governments accountable — which is exactly what legal empowerment is all about. It's about ensuring that laws are not simply words on paper but are realized in practice; that people can know, use, and shape law to realize their rights and hold governments accountable.
As young people make up the generation who will have to live through the consequences of the decisions made today, and who will be the ones who will reap the fruits of breakthrough or the aftermath of breakdown, their voices, ownership, and engagement is essential. I however, feel sick to my stomach when governments and global institutions think they have ticked the check box of “youth participation” because they organized a “youth summit” or a “consultation” or have youth representatives deliver “recommendations” to any fora — when in reality the final decisions have already been precooked in the next-door closed room.
Physical presence is by no means guarantee of real participation. Happily, there are many other options for you to get informed, engage, and take action. Please have a look at the Next Generation Fellow’s Report “Our Future Agenda”, for more inspiration on how young people are already engaging in this process.
Global Citizen was founded over a decade ago with the purpose of amplifying your voice to help make sure it’s heard by global leaders, and the movement has been growing in impact and in scope ever since.
Through our platforms, Global Citizen strives to bring you stories that can inspire you into action in your life, at the local level and also in the world. In 2022, Global Citizen’s campaigns will be inspired by the Our Common Agenda report, and we will increase our support of activism and activists around the world who are committed, or even put their own lives in danger, for our collective ownership of our global future.
Meanwhile, our partner Pathfinders and its vital work to put access to justice and trust at the center of the debate also needs your support. You can help by keeping updated on the forthcoming work of the Justice Action Coalition, and continuing to highlight the work of change makers who are truly putting people at the center of justice, as well as by joining the broader mobilization by sharing resources on how and why people-centered justice should be a priority in responses to the world's challenges.
This is also where and how you can play a role more directly as a citizen. Of course you can be part of Global Citizen’s and Pathfinders’ campaigns (we would love for you to join, and you can start taking action with us right now here) and we continuously strive to provide venues for direct participation and ownership by individuals in our global efforts. I would however also call on you particularly not to let these discussions be monopolized by diplomats and governments. There are many ways in which you can get involved and the first one is making a direct correlation between Our Common Agenda and your life, your community, your country, and the world.
How would your personal life change if access to the internet becomes a human right and you can hold your government accountable for it? After the tragedies of the pandemic, how would your public hospitals improve if we truly learned and were more prepared for the future? What would it look like for you to have trust in public institutions like your government, your parliamentarians, your city hall, the police, the health system?
A lot of things you may take for granted now started as sealed off discussions in negotiating rooms and went from acceptance to implementation, trickling down to your constitution, new laws and acts, new taxes or new subsidies, new judicial procedures, new investments generating new jobs in emerging industries. Sooner or later global discussions and decisions catch up with you and your life.
The second way involves making your voice heard to your actual representatives. You don’t need to be officially invited to a consultation being held somewhere in the rooms of the UN Headquarters in New York. You don’t need to deal with visa procedures and security checks, or break your piggy bank to pay for hotel and plane tickets. All you need is your smart phone and access to the internet (see now why internet access needs to be a human right?).
All recognized countries have an embassy to the UN in New York (or “Permanent Missions” as they are called in this case), and there is always an ambassador, who theoretically is there representing your government, which in turn represents you. We need to bring this theory to practice.
Check the UN Bluebook and look up your Permanent Mission, look out for names, email addresses, and phone numbers, and go ahead and find your Permanent Mission and your ambassador (names of ambassadors are clearly given under each country entry in the bluebook) and follow them on Twitter or other apps. And don’t just follow. Either alone or together with your school, friends, local NGO, or community movement, text them, ask them publicly what they like and dislike about Our Common Agenda, ask them if they are consulting local actors. Let them know you are interested and let them know they are being watched.
As a former Ambassador to the United Nations myself, I can assure you, most will not provide information unless they are (repeatedly and publicly) asked.
So let us think ahead and let us get involved. Global Citizen and Pathfinders are here to support you.