What Could a Successful Summit of the Future Look Like in 2024?

Secretary-General António Guterres (on screens) briefs on “Our Common Agenda” policy briefs for the Summit of the Future, June 5, 2023. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

This week, negotiations among member states on the scope of the 2024 Summit of the Future fell apart, with many states objecting to the draft that had been painstakingly negotiated over the summer. Facing deep rifts within the United Nations (UN) membership, and with some states arguing that the Summit of the Future might pull attention and resources away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a real sense of uncertainty over the summit preparations.

These divisions underscore what Secretary-General António Guterres has called a “surge in mistrust” worldwide. In a context of deep geopolitical fracture and low levels of trust, there will be a tendency for member states to act defensively, protect national interests, and minimize risks. Such a defensive posture would almost certainly lead to a lowest-common-denominator summit and would do little to advance the bold ideas in the secretary-general’s Our Common Agenda report. In fact, a Pact for the Future in 2024 that merely restated the challenges facing us today alongside an (in-principle) commitment to act collectively could contribute to an even greater sense of mistrust and cynicism about the role of the UN today.

Ironically—and tragically—a Summit of the Future that fails to generate transformative action would also mean that the most important decisions about the future of humanity and our planet would take place in less inclusive and more Global North-dominated forums, such as the G7, World Bank meetings, and the boardrooms of major companies. It would be a pyrrhic victory for those wishing to derail the Summit of the Future to find they had unintentionally set back the interests of the developing world. Rather than see the Summit of the Future as competing with the core priorities of sustainable development, it would be more useful to take it as a unique opportunity to hold all member states more accountable, deliver a tangible acceleration of the SDGs, and through that begin to build greater trust.

However, defining a successful Summit of the Future is difficult. When I have asked experts and leaders for their version or vision of success, the answer is often fuzzy, unrealistic, or far less ambitious than one might think. “The summit will be a success if there is still a UN standing after it,” one expert said. “The summit needs to result in a total overhaul of the system, or it is a failure,” another claimed. “I think the summit will be a success if states can agree on a few incremental wins, like upgrading the Peacebuilding Commission, or appointing an Envoy for Future Generations,” said a third. None of these, in my view, represents a vision for what a successful Pact for the Future might achieve, the level of ambition of the secretary-general’s Our Common Agenda report, or how we might get there.

It is important not to load too many expectations on a summit that is very unlikely to solve our bigger geopolitical problems. But it is possible to lay out some broad criteria for an outcome that could build greater trust and reduce some of the most acute risks facing us today.

Show the money

The most frequent complaint of developing countries is (rightly) that wealthier countries run the international system for their own benefit. Promises to provide hundreds of billions for climate adaptation to poorer regions have thus far remained unfulfilled. Progress on the SDGs is far behind schedule, and the 2023 SDG Summit is unlikely to generate major new financial streams. Meanwhile, the G7 dominates most international financial institutions, monopolizing the leadership of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), dictating monetary policy, and perpetuating a multi-tier system where developing countries suffer worse conditions and higher lending rates. Other major lenders beyond the G7 have not mitigated the swelling debt and inequality problem globally.

In fact, there is an emerging consensus that the post-WWII orientation of the World Bank and IMF needs to be transformed, driving the international financial system and the private sector in a more equitable, sustainable direction. Proposals like the Bridgetown Initiative, the report of the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, the SDG stimulus, and the secretary-general’s call for international financial reforms offer serious ways forward. While much of this will take place outside of (and hopefully before) September 2024, the summit can be a moment where the transformation to a 21st-century financial system is crystallized and buttressed with some measurable commitments by major lenders and boards of international financial institutions.

Get serious about the future

There is a tendency to refer to future generations in abstract terms, speaking of them as a sort of distant possibility that may appear down the line. But we know people will be born, we know there will be a lot of them, and we know they have needs that are no less important than our own. The Summit of the Future should be specific about our duties to that community and offer specific safeguards for the next generation. One way to do this is to speak in the language of universal human rights, explicitly extending those rights to future generations. In fact, the Pact for the Future could begin with a simple (if tough to negotiate) statement: “Future generations have human rights that should be protected by our actions today.”

This would need to be backed up with concrete actions that bake a future orientation into our work. For example, the secretary-general’s proposal that we move “beyond GDP” in our measurements of progress is a paradigm-shifting concept that could transform all of our investments, starting today. His recently established Futures Lab Network and announcement of a Special Envoy for Future Generations can move quickly to show the value of thinking and acting with the future as a more meaningful reference point. If also couched as addressing present needs, these steps could help restore trust with the developing world, where the overwhelming bulk of people are likely to be born in the next 50 years. Getting serious about the future means getting serious now about sustainable development, especially in the Global South.

Commit to the end of the fossil fuel era

The science is clear: our production of energy from fossil fuels is heating our planet at a dangerous rate. Even if we stopped carbon emissions today, we would still go above the 1.5-degree threshold scientists have warned is the maximum for planetary safety. The Summit of the Future is not where climate action is likely to happen, and it is important not to raise expectations too high; it is extremely unlikely that the summit will generate new binding environmental commitments. There are more hopeful signs within the World Bank that relevant reforms (including some directed at the environment) could take place prior to September 2024.

Building on this, the Summit of the Future should aim beyond the incrementalism of successive COPs, set a level of ambition beyond the billions needed for climate adaptation, and recognize that trillions are needed for an accelerated, just, green transition off fossil fuels. Something akin to an Inflation Reduction Act for the planet may be needed, driven by a massive public and private investment to lower the cost of investing in green energy, and a plan for distributing it globally. If accompanied by a clear, measurable timeline for ending any further exploitation of fossil fuels, a political commitment in September 2024 could be a game-changer and would be the clearest message that we were taking present and future generations seriously.

Show the value of the UN in a chaotic world

There is an assumption that the UN has the most value at times of high levels of international cooperation. The most common example is the early 1990s when the UN experienced a surge in activity, driven by the post-Cold War alignment of major powers. But counterintuitively, it may be the moments of greatest fracture and uncertainty that the real value of the UN appears, if in a somewhat dimmer light. Today, we face extraordinary risks from artificial intelligence, biological threats, nuclear weapons, climate change, cyberweapons, a fragile global economy, and contestation in outer space. These risks are compounded by a lack of common purpose, geostrategic competition, and an absence of forums to deconflict when shocks occur.

The UN may not be the place where these issues can be met head-on, but it can be where the worst impacts of these risks are reduced, where a minimum level of order can be found, and where some of the enormous benefits of emerging technologies can be distributed equitably around the world. The Pact for the Future could, for example, articulate some clear normative guardrails like “humans, not machines, should make decisions about our existence.” If tied to transparent and independent accountability mechanisms, such a step could reduce the risk that artificial intelligence might set off a nuclear weapon or take over other crucial systems.

Similarly, the Pact could help to carve out a clearer role for the UN in mitigating the human costs of war, using the secretary-general’s Black Sea Grain Initiative as a model. And it could pick up on the proposals by the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism and the New Agenda for Peace policy brief to build more independent, scientifically-driven mechanisms to assess the risks of strategic weapons, biological threats, and emerging technologies. Even more ambitious proposals like the Emergency Platform offer a sense that the UN has an enormous potential value in a chaotic, polycentric world.

I have intentionally left out an important basket of actions that could make a big difference: the fixes, upgrades, and reforms needed to the UN itself. This includes proposals to reform the Security Council, upgrade the UN Environmental Programme, bolster the Peacebuilding Commission, increase the UN’s capacities to track climate-driven security risks, and strengthen the UN’s regional prevention capacities, among others. It’s easy to imagine how much of the member state-led effort over the next year will be focused on these kinds of fixes, on the assumption that some of them may fall within the Overton window of political possibility. Member states always seem to prefer tinkering with the UN Secretariat over the more difficult and costly decisions at the global level, so some of these lower-hanging, cheaper fruit will be appealing. And many of these proposals would in fact be vital stepping stones to achieving the bigger changes needed. But in my view, they are not what will determine whether the Summit of the Future is a success, and many of them could happen outside of the Summit process.


One ambitious vision of the Pact for the Future in 2024 would see it as a normative moment as important as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago. The UDHR helped to crystallize a set of global norms and principles that cascaded across the international system and became the network of institutions, laws, rights, and capacities that have transformed much of our world. Now may feel like the wrong moment for the UN to try to flex its normative muscles, given the deep geopolitical divides and the risk that yet another set of easily ignored norms could further erode trust. But if the Pact of the Future was able to lock in the principle that our actions today must meaningfully account for future generations, it could have a catalytic function, driving transformative changes to our financial, political, social, and ethical realms. This could be accomplished without cramming in dozens of specific proposals to the Pact of the Future, a process that is already aggravating many member states. Indeed, without altering a word of the UN Charter, the Pact for the Future could act like a constitutional amendment, demanding that we represent future generations’ rights and needs today. If accompanied by some of the more tangible, achievable steps described above, the Summit of the Future could begin to build a greater sense of trust among member states and in the UN.

This was a very tough week for those negotiating the scope of the Summit of the Future, and we may well face many more weeks of uncertainty and further divisions amongst UN membership. Critics of the UN will be quick to argue that a successful summit is already out of reach, and may suggest we put our efforts into other processes. This would be a mistake. Though far from perfect, the UN remains the best place to create a blueprint for the future that reflects the needs of all people everywhere and “everywhen.” The next generation of humanity deserves a renewed effort to make the Summit of the Future a success.

Adam Day is the Head of UN University Centre for Policy Research Geneva Office. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of UN University or the United Nations.