Shifting our future away from total breakdown: Three UN reads to shape our thinking
06 June 2023
Reforming the global financial system, moving beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of economic progress, and addressing technology challenges are crucial to achieving a more just and equitable future for all, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said this week.
He was speaking at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday, June 5th, where he presented three new policy briefs on these themes to Member States.
“They touch on some of the most serious challenges we face – challenges that may determine whether we are able to achieve the vision of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, or whether we continue towards a future of continued social, financial, political and environmental breakdown,” he said.
The briefs are intended to inform discussions ahead of the crunch SDG Summit in September, marking the midpoint towards achieving the Goals, and the related Summit of the Future next year.
They are the latest in a series of 11 briefs based on proposals contained in Our Common Agenda, the Secretary-General’s 2021 report that outlines a vision for future global cooperation and multilateral action.
Equitable finance system
Mr. Guterres has frequently spoken about the need to reform the international financial architecture to make it more resilient, equitable, and accessible to all.
The current system, established under the Bretton Woods Agreement nearly 80 years ago - “when many of today’s developing and emerging economies were under colonial rule” – is supposed to represent the world but doesn’t, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath also revealed how the system “largely failed” in fulfilling its core mandate as a financial safety net, with many developing countries now facing deep financial crisis and debt relief at a standstill.
“Africa now spends more on debt service costs than on healthcare,” he remarked.
Addressing historic injustices
The first policy brief sets out proposals to address historic injustices and systemic bias and covers six areas, including global economic governance, debt relief and the cost of sovereign borrowing, and international public finance.
“Overall, the proposals in the brief are aimed at moving away from a system that benefits the rich and prioritizes short-term gains, towards one that is equitable, and invests up-front in the SDGs, climate action, and future generations,” he said.
Measures put forward include expanding the boards of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund “to strengthen the voice and representation of developing countries”.
There should also be “a representative apex body” overseeing the entire system, to enhance its coherence and align priorities with the 2030 Agenda, as well as a Debt Workout Mechanism which would link development financing with commercial creditors.
Another proposal calls for “the massive scaling up of development and climate financing, in part by changing the business model of multilateral development banks and transforming their approach to risk, to massively leverage private finance at reasonable cost to developing countries.”
Going beyond GDP
Turning to the second policy brief, Mr. Guterres noted that although GDP will continue to be an important metric, it must be accompanied by other ways to measure progress.
“There is a growing recognition that GDP overlooks human activities that sustain life and contribute to well-being, while placing disproportionate value on those that damage us and deplete our planet,” he said.
“Human progress depends on many factors, from levels of poverty and hunger, to inequality and social cohesion, and vulnerability to climate breakdown and other shocks,” he explained.
Reflect common values
The policy brief first proposes that countries “make a political commitment to a conceptual framework that accurately values what matters for people, the planet, and the future.”
The goal would be on achieving three outcomes: a focus on well-being and agency, respect for life and the planet, and reduced inequalities, and developing related metrics.
New indicators of progress
“GDP is concise. It summarizes information in an intuitive manner that tells a story. But well-being, equality, and environmental sustainability cannot be addressed bya single snapshot,” Mr. Guterres said, underlining the need for “a broader set of indicators to monitor and analyse progress and recognize trade-offs and consequences”.
The policy brief further calls for a massive step-up in support to help countries develop the data capacity necessary to make any new metrics operational, which will also improve monitoring progress towards achieving the SDGs.
Greater digital cooperation
The final brief proposes a vision for digital cooperation that is anchored in human rights and protects against risks and harms. It also underscores the need for a Global Digital Compact, one of the recommendations in the Our Common Agenda report.
The brief comes at a time of “exponential acceleration” in technology - including in areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), deep fakes and bioengineering. At the same time, access remains unequal, as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, control of digital technologies has brought huge wealth to a select few individuals and companies. Governments and regulators have struggled to respond, leading to lack of trust in regulatory institutions.
Mitigate new tech risks
The Secretary-General also pointed to the challenge presented by the increasing and now widespread use of generative AI, such as ChatGPT, the future impact of which is unclear.
He said although AI could potentially “turbocharge development and productivity”, including towards achieving the SDGs, it also presents serious ethical challenges.
Global Digital Compact
“The prospect of further technological progress now often inspires fear rather than hope,” he continued.
“There is an urgent need for governments to come together in a Global Digital Compact, to mitigate the risks of digital technologies, and identify ways to harness their benefits for the good of humanity.”
The Compact would provide a framework to align national, regional and industry approaches around global priorities, principles and objectives.
The brief also identifies areas for urgent global action, including scaling up access, building digital public infrastructure and supporting public administrations to regulate technology.
Mr. Guterres reiterated his proposal for a High-Level Advisory Body for Artificial Intelligence to review AI governance arrangements so that they can align with human rights, the rule of law and the common good.
The Secretary-General has been releasing a series of policy briefs that offer more detail on some of the proposals contained in Our Common Agenda.