To mark its 75th year, the United Nations eschewed the usual festivities to celebrate the milestone and opted instead to embark on a soul-searching journey asking people worldwide—through a one-minute survey and structured dialogues—what their hopes, fears, and priorities were for the future, and what role the UN could play in manifesting it. As Fabrizio Hochschild, the UN Special Adviser for the 75th Anniversary reasoned, rather than changing public opinion, “we should be letting public opinion change us.” In hindsight this was a fortuitous call, not least as the epochal year was marred by the relentless advance of COVID-19.
Over one million people participated in the UN-led consultation process, culminating in the UN75: The Future We Want, The UN We Need report, released in September at a special High Level meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary. Although the UN Charter’s own preamble invokes that the UN is to be at the service of “We the Peoples,” the UN75 Report is, perhaps, the first time the world body has systematically sought out “the peoples” input in formulating the institution’s overall priorities and commitments (an earlier effort—the My World survey and report—was narrowly aimed at better understanding development priorities and contributed to the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals).
Further, the very fact that member states adopted a declaration based on the input of the global public, including the voices of youth, academics, indigenous peoples, and grassroots activists, among others, is nothing short of historic. The timing of such contemplations and reaffirmations seems apt against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic, and an already strained multilateral system. The two questions that come to the forefront are: what did the global public have to say, and was it truly global in its representation?
The UN75 report produced ten key findings that highlighted what respondents felt were both immediate and long-term priorities. This was particularly apparent in the first key finding, which highlighted respondents prioritization of expanded access to basic services, including healthcare, water, sanitation, and education, all intensified by the COVID-19 crisis.
The second key finding called for “greater international solidarity and increased support to the places hardest hit by the pandemic,” especially in “tackling poverty, inequalities and boosting employment.” The third hoped that access to education and women’s rights would improve. The fourth expressed the concern in the medium- and long-term on the “inability to stem the climate crisis and the destruction of the natural environment.” The fifth underlined the need for “ensuring greater respect for human rights, settling conflicts, tackling poverty and reducing corruption” in future. Notably, the need for increased access to healthcare was ranked as the first or second priority for every single world region sampled.
Overall, the priorities among the diverse set of respondents were incredibly unified. In order to ensure diversity and a large global sample size, great effort was taken to promote the one-minute survey among a broad international audience. Although wide representation was achieved in order to conduct quantitative analyses, the results were not necessarily representative. Despite this, the effort put forth led to the majority of respondents coming from the Global South, with over half being from Central and Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Further, in an effort to include those without access to the internet, the survey was adapted for offline data gathering through a mobile application and other tools. In contrast, the structured dialogues, which provided more in-depth responses and detailed insights into the priorities expressed by participants were fairly concentrated in North America, with over 100 of the 387 total dialogues submitted from this region alone. However, with the five data streams taken in their totality and viewed together it is clear that the results of the report show a diverse set of emerging priorities intrinsically global, if, perhaps, not entirely representative.
While the ten key findings of the UN75 Report are strongly echoed in the twelve action items listed by member states in the General Assembly Declaration—including the pledge to “leave no one behind,” “protect our planet,” “build trust” and “upgrade the United Nations”—there is no guarantee that these demands or indeed even the action items may translate into direct or concrete action. In fact, there is greater likelihood of inaction on account several factors.
First, the consensus behind the declaration remains fragile. This was evident in June, when the “silence procedure” to adopt the declaration was broken by several countries who objected to the phrase “shared vision for a common future,” purportedly because it reflected Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concept of global order. The consensus was preserved when that phrase was replaced by “for the common future of present and coming generations.”
Second, operationalization of the action items is likely to be contested. This is primarily because of the ongoing phenomena of populist leaders and countries pursuing “nation first” policies that are likely to further impair the UN’s operational role. The sparring over the World Health Organization, and the contestations among the permanent five members of the UN Security Council—especially China and the United States—is evident of this trend. The China-US spat is unlikely to dissipate even under a more UN-friendly administration, and might even escalate on some issues.
Third, in the COVID-19 induced global economic meltdown the prospect of the action item of “ensuring sustainable financing” is likely to be a non-starter, unless new sources of financing are identified and manifested. Similarly, the pledge to upgrade the UN and “instil new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council” is likely to be dead on arrival.
Nonetheless, the UN75 Report and companion General Assembly Declaration are likely to have a positive impact on the future evolution of the UN, some of which is already evident. First, as Maria Fernanda Espinosa, president of the 73rd General Assembly session and member of the Group of Women Leaders, Voices for Change and Inclusion noted recently, “the survey process needs to be a permanent built-in mechanism for the UN to listen to what the people are saying on a daily basis.” Second, in an era of increased competition among hegemonic states, non-hegemonic states, “sovereignty-free” non-state and sub-states actors (such as cities), and individuals—with assistance from foundations (who also supported the UN75 Report)—are likely to articulate the future we want and lead the way to a UN we need.
While the pace of progress led by this multi-stakeholder coalition might not be ideal, it is better than no progress at all. As David Malone and Adam Day noted in a recent article: “It would be tragic, but no longer entirely surprising, if the tender egos of today’s ‘strong men’ states were to create the conditions under which the UN could do little more than survive as an empty husk, an ambition without meaningful impact… We hope that the UN will be able to generate some of the constructive ideas and dynamism of the past, while adapting itself to the challenges of today.” The UN75 report and declaration are an important milestone in that journey.
Michaela Millender is a M.S. Candidate in Global Affairs at New York University specializing in the United Nations. She was one of the research analysts for the UN75 Report: The Future We Want, The UN We Need.