Through Global Citizen’s advocacy work over the last decade, one fact has become strikingly clear: we as humanity are living through a global justice crisis.
Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of humanity — over 5 billion people — lacked access to justice. Today, more than 253 million people live in a situation of extreme injustice, without any legal protection — they are internally displaced, stateless, or living in modern slavery, existing on the margins and without recourse to remedy.
Sustained, systemic injustice deeply undermines societal trust. It fragments communities, diminishes human capital, and increases the risk of violence within and between groups. It embeds inequality into every aspect of society and the economy. These ongoing injustices have only been made worse by the crises we are currently facing, from ongoing conflict and war to an inequitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic to global environmental degradation.
There is an urgent need to build a new type of global collaboration that is hopeful, energizing, and much more effective in achieving fair outcomes for all and tackling systemic barriers.
But what does that really mean? Global Citizen is breaking down what you need to know about the global governance deficit, how we can help address the gaps, and what a fair future for all might look like.
What is "global governance" and what do we mean by "global governance deficit"?
Global governance basically refers to how decisions are made and implemented at the global level. This does not refer to a single entity or organization, but the way in which all the decision-making bodies engage, hopefully with participation and scrutiny by the people they are supposed to serve. To be successful, it requires cooperation, unity, and a desire to work together to address inequities. Unfortunately, many things, including the unequal response to COVID-19, the slow progress on climate action, and the recent invasion of Ukraine, have demonstrated the failings of the intergovernmental system, which is what we mean when we reference the "global governance deficit." Even when we continue to see its presence, it is mostly in the form of "old-school multilateralism."
What is "old-school multilateralism" exactly?
To us, "old-school multilateralism" means the traditional way in which decisions between governments were made historically until very recently — decisions made involving only the political and financial elites, most times in a very opaque way with little transparency, consultation, and accountability by citizens. The time of old-school practice is obsolete in a world where interconnectedness is global and sharing of information and ideas is immediate.
What would a new version of multilateralism entail?
Multilateralism is about more than the diplomats and United Nations staff that live in the New York and Geneva bubbles. There are ways for activists, civil servants, private sector actors, innovators, and young people to work together towards shared goals and in defense of shared values, and we want to see a world where these processes involve more than just actors familiar to the UN.
Is it fair to say that multilateralism is not only about institutions, but about people?
That’s right. There is a new kind of people power. We can decide that it is about us. In every country in the world, there are people fighting for justice despite the positions taken and power plays of their governments. They are helping others and working hard to make society more fair; they are innovating and they are creating more sustainable economies.
We are at a crossroads. Everyday people and civic society say that multilateralism is important, but rather than trying to revive the old model, we need to look around and see the global ecosystem that has emerged over the past two decades and build a new multilateralism.
How does the traditional way of multilateralism — and politics — impact people’s involvement?
In national contexts, centralized leadership models are highly problematic — people feel disconnected from government and do not see institutions delivering for them. A new generation of leaders understands this, and more importantly, people around the world are acting on it. Old dichotomies of civil society versus the government are being overcome by processes of co-creating.
One example of this type of new multilateralism is the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies. In recent years, they have had a task force on justice, which was a mix of government representatives and global experts, working with a wide range of partners through flexible modalities to set out an agenda for how to achieve Global Goal 16: Justice for All. A newly formed justice action coalition is now taking the work forward, bringing together government representatives with experts, UN organizations, NGOs, civil society, and justice innovators.
How does this relate to the need for reform at the UN level?
This is what the Secretary-General of the UN means when he calls for a more networked, inclusive, and effective multilateralism in the report "Our Common Agenda". But if this is to be "anchored within the UN" as the report proposes, the UN itself will need to adapt.
The UN was founded more than 75 years ago. How can it still ensure global governance in our modern world?
The seeds of people-centeredness have always been part of the UN. Eleanor Roosevelt, in the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, famously said that human rights begin in the "small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person."
The UN Charter starts with the words: "We the peoples."
Traditionally, the UN handled treaties, formal decision-making, and legally binding accountability mechanisms as part of its global governance. In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (known as the SDGs or the Global Goals) took a different approach. These are not binding norms, but universally agreed-upon shared goals. Moreover, the SDGs themselves are not seen to belong to the UN, they are for everyone. The 2030 Agenda is also a vehicle for decolonizing international cooperation, because it is a universal agenda and no country in the world has yet achieved these goals.
Can the current global governance deficit lead us to a better place?
Yes, we can work together on our common agenda for the future. We can decide not to allow dictators to hijack the story of the UN. Multilateralism can be more than geopolitical grandstanding and ego fights among authoritarians to the detriment of their people. We can decide to work together with the vast majority of people who want solutions and solidarity, not competition and exploitation. That is the multilateralism of the future.
In September 2021, the UN released a report called "Our Common Agenda". Why should I care about it?
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.
How is this related to the whole idea of outdated multilateralism?
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.
What is the "Our Common Agenda" report all about?
In 2020, the UN turned 75, and global leaders decided on a series of priorities for its future — 12 of them in total, covering everything from protecting our planet and promoting peace to centering women and girls, to listening to and working with youth to being prepared (after being caught off guard by the pandemic).
These global leaders then asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres 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 Guterres came up with.
Why is this document important and not just more of the same?
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, showcasing 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.
What does it have to do with me?
How would your personal life change if access to the internet becomes a human right and you could 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, or new investments generating new jobs in emerging industries. Sooner or later, global discussions and decisions become a very real part of your local life.
What does "Our Common Agenda" have to do with Global Goal 16 and the global governance deficit?
What’s most striking about the "Our Common Agenda" report 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).
"Our Common Agenda" calls for a new vision of the rule of law that seeks to address the disconnect people feel from institutions that serve them by putting people at the center of justice systems. This will support nations, communities, and people in rebuilding their social contract as a foundation for sustaining peace. By engaging public participation, institutions can deliver what people need most, and build on the Global Goals. Distrust is fueled by inequality and corruption, and so this agenda — this renewed social contract — must have, at its core, justice.
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 actively taken into account, no matter your age, gender, or where you are from. To put it simply, we must not leave anyone behind.
How does all of this relate to the idea of justice for all?
To achieve trust, justice and legal empowerment are critical. 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.
What does access to justice have to do with poverty and with correcting the global governance deficit?
The existence of poverty is an issue of injustice. Achieving justice for all, in law and in practice, is at the heart of our work to end extreme poverty, defend the planet, and demand equity. In 2022, Global Citizen launched the End Extreme Poverty NOW campaign, outlining four key areas that require collective, transformative action: breaking systemic barriers, protecting the environment, empowering girls, and defending advocacy and civic space. Across each of these important focus areas runs a uniting concept of justice and equity — for the world, between governing countries and institutions, and between and among people in our global community.
What needs to be done to improve access to justice?
There are clear pathways to closing the justice gap and putting people at the center of justice. First, people must be empowered to effectively resolve the justice problems that they face. This requires renewed investment in legal empowerment, an approach that treats communities as agents of change, transforming their knowledge, capacity, and confidence to solve justice problems on their own. Second, justice systems must provide people-centered justice services that accommodate diversity, meet people where they are, and respond to their needs. Third, justice systems must collect and share more — and better — data to understand the individual experiences of justice seekers, their decision-making processes, and the extent to which they were able to resolve their problem and achieve a fair outcome.
How does this translate to the implementation of "Our Common Agenda"?
Well, in three particular ways, mostly:
- By putting people at the center of justice systems: We need new and renewed commitments to put people's justice problems at the center of justice systems, resolve justice problems with fair, open, inclusive, relevant, and timely justice solutions that respect human rights, empower people to tackle the root causes of injustice, access justice services, and achieve fair outcomes and enable them to participate fully in society and the economy. This includes legal empowerment.
- By addressing poverty alleviation through a justice lens: In order to ensure justice for all, we must inspire better collection and use of justice data — with a focus on ensuring fair outcomes and greater accountability of systems to the people they serve.
- By supporting civic space and enhancing partnerships to repair the social contract: We must use the experience of the last two years to better prepare for the future. International processes which require the deep partnership of civil society to succeed — from the next COP27 on climate to the decisions of the G7 and G20 — are failing to engage people in the way they must to create change. By focusing on making people partners in delivering justice — not just objects of institutions and laws, but participants in their shaping and execution — we can foster the collective will and energy to tackle the globe’s most pressing challenges together.
This September, the UN Secretary-General will announce plans for the Summit of the Future, a high-level gathering of leaders to be held in September 2023. This summit could be a game-changing moment for global governance with leaders re-committing to achieving the Global Goals and plotting out the plans and aspirations for the next generation.
The UN has appointed a High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism led by some of the globe’s most eminent thinkers and political leaders. Their goal is to issue recommendations for the Summit of the Future — and they need our help!
Global Citizens have a chance now to input their thoughts about how to make the world safer, more sustainable, and more equitable for all. Leaders have hard choices to make and many crises to address — where should they start? What should they focus on?
It’s time for you to have your say. Tell us your views on what needs fixing for a just, fair world by filling out the survey linked here. We’ll send your answers directly to the United Nations ahead of their Summit of the Future.