Breakdown or Breakthrough? The High Stakes in Our Common Agenda

By Elizabeth Cousens on September 14, 2021

On the day of the official nomination of the new Secretary-General to succeed Secretary-General Kofi Annan, outiside the United Nations Headquarters, flags fly in the north end of the building, on a sunny fall day. UN Photo/Mark Garten.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has just launched Our Common Agenda, his vision for renewing global cooperation for the future. UN Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Cousens explores the highlights from this landmark report and explains what comes next.

In just one year, a simple virus — long predicted by global health experts — killed 4.5 million people, sent global GDP plummeting by 3.5%, and caused half the world’s children to be affected by school closures, 124 million people to be pushed into extreme poverty, women to leave the workforce in record numbers, and 23 million children to miss routine immunizations against life-threatening diseases.

This is just a fraction of the human and social toll of COVID-19, which has also deepened divisions, fueled conspiracy theories, and worsened inequities at every level that were already intolerably high.

This is also what happens when we fail to prepare or adequately respond to a true, collective threat in our interconnected world. We face an immediate cascade of impacts that touches every aspect of our lives. We are given a visceral reminder that each of us holds each other’s fates in our hands — that solidarity is, in fact, self-interest.

COVID-19 is our test, and it won’t be the last. The climate emergency is, of course, already upon us.

Vaccination campaign launch against COVID-19 in Democratic Republic of Congo, with vaccines received through the COVAX initiative. Photo by Olivia Acland/UNICEF

We are at a turning point — an “open moment” in history, as some have said — and the choices we make now will determine our shared future.

Will we summon the resolve to end the COVID-19 pandemic fully and equitably? If we fail, we stand to lose $9.2 trillion in 2021 alone. If we succeed, we save lives and livelihoods and gain new confidence that we can conquer collective challenges together.

Will we act on what science unequivocally tells us to limit climate change and keep our planet a safe home for humanity? If we fail, we guarantee a future of increasing weather extremes, competition over resources, and cascades of intersecting crises. Air pollution already kills 7 million people a year today, let alone if we fail to correct it. But if we succeed, we reap the gains of technology and a decarbonized economy for better health and better lives. A green economy could yield gains of $26 trillion and 65 million new jobs by 2030 alone.

And will we, finally, recognize the indivisibility of our common future and the imperative of working together to secure it?

The flags of the 193 member states of the United Nations at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Mathias P.R. Reding/ Unsplash


The UN Secretary-General has just presented Our Common Agenda, his vision for renewing global cooperation to meet the needs of the 21st century and the expectations of people everywhere for a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable world. In his words, the choice is clear: Our future can be secured only if we admit that “we are bound to each other and that no community or country, however powerful, can solve its challenges alone.”

Our Common Agenda presents a vision and plan for how the United Nations can bring together world leaders, international organizations, global businesses, civil society champions, and young people to solve global problems.

The plan starts with tackling growing polarization and inequality within our societies, and for good reason. Countries find it hard to cooperate globally when social cohesion is fraying at home, and surely the greatest test of international cooperation is whether it can enable real change in real people’s lives and communities.

Our Common Agenda presents a compelling case for a renewed social contract between people and their governments based on a comprehensive vision of human rights, inclusion, and participation, as an indispensable basis for rebuilding people’s trust in the institutions that serve them.

The Secretary-General calls for restoring trust in science and ending the “infodemic” that is tearing at our social fabric by the day.

He proposes that we measure what matters and challenge our systems to move beyond GDP to capture the full measure of our economic impact on human, social, and natural systems — something the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also urged.

With half the world today under 30 and more than 10 billion people to be born this century, the Secretary-General also calls for new ambition in delivering for young people and future generations. He wants to create space for young people within the international system as designers of the future, while delivering on their core priorities, such as education and skills, jobs and economic opportunities, and tackling climate change and existential threats to their future. He calls for a Special Envoy for Future Generations and a Declaration on Future Generations to be agreed at a Summit of the Future. To increase foresight, a new Futures Lab will connect and coalesce collective capacity to think, plan, and act for the future.

Secretary-General António Guterres meets with young people at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, as part of the global conversation on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Photo: Jean-Marc Ferré/ UN Photo

At the heart of the new agenda sits a set of proposals that will support the global commons and global public goods on which we all depend, while preventing and mitigating the risks that can turn our lives upside down in the blink of an eye.

Our Common Agenda calls for new attention to global trends and risks, a more resilient global economy that works for all, a new agenda for peace as risks to collective security grow, and a plan to reclaim the digital commons as a space for the future of humanity. He includes a call for a “last mile alliance” to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals for the most vulnerable and proposes an Emergency Platform for the next time the world faces a crisis on the scale of COVID-19. Both are ideas the UN Foundation has long championed.

The thread that runs through all the Secretary-General’s proposals is the need for a revitalized multilateralism that is more networked, inclusive, and accountable to “We the Peoples.” The interconnected challenges we face today can be surmounted only by working together across borders and sectors. Twenty-first century multilateralism needs us to be “all in” and needs all of us to be in.

A UN policeman and a UN peacekeeper in Cyprus greet each other in a COVID-safe fashion. Photo: UN Peacekeeping


That vision has long inspired us at the UN Foundation, and we have often called for a more innovative multilateralism for the future that is focused on the most pressing challenges, open to new models of collaboration, and including from the beginning everyone with a stake in how international institutions and systems perform.

We were proud to support Our Common Agenda over the past year, working with the Igarapé Institute and other partners to mobilize expertise, ideas, and research, and collaborating with dozens of countries from every region that, rightly, have high expectations for what the UN needs to deliver in an era of crisis and change.

We also hosted a group of Next Generation Fellows, who were asked by the Secretary-General to bring together young leaders, activists, and thinkers to contribute to his report and publish a companion volume, Our Future Agenda. Their convener, Aishwarya Machani, also writes about the essential role played by young people in developing Our Common Agenda.

In the coming weeks, we will be speaking and writing about the opportunities for taking forward Our Common Agenda and acting on its bracing call to action.

We look forward to redoubling work with partners who see the United Nations as a platform to solve humanity’s greatest challenges and who share our belief that Our Common Agenda can inspire the reinvigorated multilateralism we need to secure our common future.