Now for the Long Term: The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations

4. Part B: Responsible Futures
“The scale of today’s challenges means countries and organizations must enhance, and prioritize, their capacity to think and act with a longer-term perspective…in Part B, we aim to shed light on why gridlock prevails where action is imperative…to understand the factors that are undermining political will to act, despite the urgency and extent of the problems.” (p.37) Key lessons are distilled from historical examples where impediments to action have been successfully overcome. Elements that contribute to success:

  • Crisis is often a stimulant for action, e.g., the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, the G-20 arising from the 2008 global financial crisis, establishing
  • The Financial Stability Board in 2009 and the International Criminal Court in 2002; the Year 2000 Network set up to counter Y2K threats which proved overstated.
  • Mutual Interests have long been a key ingredient of cooperation and progress, illustrated by the Single Market Programme in Europe, and the 1989 Montreal Protocol to prevent ozone depletion.
  • Leadership can be decisive in translating shared interests into definitive action, e.g., the achievements of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr; leadership by Gro Harlem Bruntland played an important role in ratifying the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003 as the world’s first global public health treaty.
  • Inclusion characterizes many prominent interventions such as the UN, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and creation of the G-20.
  • Networks counter the paradox of globalization, providing more governance on a global and regional scale without centralization of power and coercive authority; they facilitate equal and open dialogue and trust between participants.
  • Partnerships bring together stakeholders from government, business, academia, and civil society, e.g.: the IPCC established in 1988 and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations.
  • Goals, Prizes, and Indexes can play an important role in promoting best practice, e.g.: the Virgin Earth Challenge, the Shell Springboard, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance, and the Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum.
  • National Transformation offers lessons about progressive interventions on the national level, e.g. South Africa’s 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission and South Korea’s turnaround since the 1960s.

While celebrating these successes, it is also vital to reflect on lessons from many failures:

  • Tragedy of the Commons when actors seek to maximize consumption of a scarce resource, e.g. the shrinking of the Aral Sea to 10% of its original size by 2007, and the rapid increase in global fishing that has led to the decline of marine biodiversity and compromised ocean resilience.
  • Lack of Intergenerational Vision as illustrated by disappointing outcomes at the 2009 UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen and the Rio+20 Summit in 2012.
  • Absence of Global Oversight, notably during the financial crisis.
  • Resistance of Vested Interests, notably major tobacco corporations and coal and oil interests.
  • Lack of Awareness of critical issues; too much information can cloud public judgment and make people more passive; also, too many conversations are closed to too many people.

In sum, what makes change so hard? Five shaping factors must be taken into account:

  • Institutions built for yesterday, that suffer from legitimacy, authority, and effectiveness deficits;
  • today’s global governance institutions seem unfit to address far more complex and interconnected challenges within their current configurations and cultures; also, coming to agreement has become more fraught because the number of actors and voices has multiplied on the international stage (this raises questions about the efficacy of world summits).
  • Embedded Short-Termism increasingly driving our politics and business; performance metrics and quarterly earnings targets encourage a focus on short-term stock prices; this can be countered by a whole-of-government approach to long-term planning and various foresight institutions such as Finland’s Committee for the Future and the proposal by the World Future Council for an International Ombudsperson for Future Generations.
  • Political Engagement and Public Trust: engaging young people in politics is vital, yet they are less and less interested in party politics and politics more generally, and increasingly disillusioned with politics as usual and mistrusting leadership, aided by changes in the media and a reduced number of independent journalists and reporting resources.
  • Growing Complexity: issues are becoming more complex as we see an accelerated pace of change, with many human activities increasingly driving the Earth’s system toward dangerous thresholds or tipping points; “there is remarkably limited comprehension or acknowledgement of the scale, urgency, and connectivity of the problems” (p.52); whereas insurance is widespread against personal risks, uncertainty about climate change is used as an excuse not to act.
  • Cultural Biases: countries lack the capacity to speak to each other openly; what is lacking is a bedrock of common values to create a shared ambition for civilization; hyper-globalization has transformed the core of modern societies, creating both opportunities and tensions, but this does not mean that thinking on the big issues is shared; culture does not explain everything, but it often orients the prism through which we interpret and formulate beliefs.

5. Part C: Practical Futures: Principles and Recommendations
“Fresh thinking is urgently required in order to address critical global challenges and prevent future crises…we aim to contribute meaningfully to the necessary strategic and institutional renewal” (p.57). Five key principles are used to organize the recommendations, which can guide action and institutional change:

  1. Creative Coalitions: multi-stakeholder partnerships to prompt learning and deeper change, e.g. a) the fight against climate change can be kick-started by a “C20-C30-C40” coalition that brings together the G-20 countries, 30 selected companies, and 40 large cities; b) a “CyberEx” initiative to identify emerging common threats regarding cyber security while helping companies and governments to minimize future attacks; c) a global network of “Fit Cities” dedicated to fighting the rise of NDCs;
  2. Innovative, Open and Reinvigorated Institutions: a) 21st century institutions independent of short-term pressures of governing and the 24/7 media cycle, which conduct systematic reviews of longer-term issues; b) build sunset clauses into most publicly-funded international institutions and require a review of accomplishments, to ensure regular reflection of organizational performance and purpose and steering toward long-term resilience; c) optimize new forms of political participation, transparency, and accountability; d) establish “Worldstat” to undertake quality control of global statistics, assess domestic practices, regulate misuse, and improve data collection (this could hasten the ideas of the 2009 Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress; see Joseph Stiglitz et al, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add UpThe New Press, 2010); e) establish a Voluntary World Taxation and Regulatory Exchange to harmonize corporate taxation arrangements and encourage multinationals to disclose their tax planning and transfer pricing arrangements;
  3. Revalue the Future: a) adjust political, legal, and economic structures in favor of future generations; b) give priority to proposals made by the Group of 30 on Long-term Finance, especially long-term accounting frameworks; c) give greater attention to “the considerable implications generated by assumptions in current discounting models and their bias against future generations”; the discount rate should be lower, rather than higher; discounting should embrace “a more sophisticated appreciation of the role of ethics, risk, and the scale of possible damages in the future” (p.61); d) invest in people by removing price-distorting perverse subsidies on hydrocarbons and agriculture, with support re-directed to targeted pro-poor transfer; e) develop a Long-Term Impact Index to highlight the importance of investing in appropriate infrastructure and decision-making processes that enhance long-term resilience and inclusiveness.
  4. Invest in Younger Generations: a) break the inter-generational persistence of poverty through social protection measures such as conditional cash transfer programs (evidence from countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico suggests that cash transfers can reduce child poverty); b) create new employment and training opportunities for young people through “youth guarantee programs” available to all between, say, 15 and 29 years old, based on successful programs in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, etc. that enable a smooth transition from education to work and prevent long-term unemployment.
  5. Establish a Common Platform of Understanding: a) articulate a common global vision and ambition to create global belonging among citizens, building on aspirations of the UN Charter, etc.

Concludes that, “As a Commission, we will continue to engage with governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society in order to take our recommendations forward… By so doing, we hope that together we can contribute to the construction of a sustainable world for current and future generations. We invite you to engage with us on these issues” (p.65).

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