Why We Need a Permanent Global Citizens’ Assembly

By Aishwarya Machani

Never before have more people had more opportunities for political expression.

4.2 billion people worldwide will have a chance to hit the polls this year, making it the biggest election year in history. And social media now gives 4.9 billion people worldwide a platform to voice their political opinions.

Yet young people, who form a majority of the world’s population and who are set to inherit the consequences of today’s political decisions, don’t believe these opportunities are enough. For starters, the once shining promise of social media has been dulled by internet shutdowns, as well as growing awareness of algorithmic biases, and the potential effects of social media on mental health. What’s more, young people know that in an age where the biggest challenges facing us – be it climate change, infectious disease, or AI governance – are borderless, their governments can no longer offer the solutions they need.

Young people are now banging on the doors of global institutions. As a UN Foundation Next Generation Fellow, I was tasked, in 2021, with gathering inputs from young people from around the world for Secretary-General Guterres’ Our Common Agenda report. The message from them was clear: they want young people, and countries whose populations skew young, to play a leading role in the multilateral system. In the companion report the Secretary-General asked us to write, we emphasized, therefore, the need for young people to have a “seat at the decision making table… as designers of [their] own future,” and the broader need for inclusive global governance.

There has been some response to such demands. In 2022, for example, Member States voted to establish a UN Youth Office. This now offers a valuable space for young activists who are passionate about global challenges and global governance to mobilize.

But far too little is being done to allow the average global citizen to meaningfully participate. In a recently published challenge paper, my fellow authors and I argue that the perfunctory “tick the box” initiatives that the UN currently uses to include citizens’ input are unacceptable. Participants are often left disappointed having sacrificed time and energy for consultations that have little impact. Also, while scientists and business have structured ways to engage with the UN, through the IPCC and the Global Compact respectively, no such body exists for global citizens.

What’s more, the zero draft of the Pact for the Future, which will be the main intergovernmental outcome of the upcoming Summit of the Future says nothing about the need to include global citizens. This is a failure on the part of Member States who have promised in the past to make the UN more inclusive. It’s as if the negotiators got sucked so far into the detail, they forgot about the very people whom the UN was created to serve.

This is a missed opportunity to make the multilateral system more effective. Evidence shows that when policies are designed hand-in-hand with those who are going to be most affected by them, it leads to better results. It is why, for example, peace agreements last longer when young people are involved in their design. Given that the biggest challenges we face today are global and intergenerational, equipping people of all ages to participate in global governance isn’t just nice. It’s necessary.

Six months out from the Summit of the Future, it is not too late to course correct. Member States can still use the Pact to make it clear that citizens will get a seat at the decision-making table, as well as use the Pact, or the Summit itself, to support initiatives that provide a voice for citizens in global governance.

A “deliberative wave” has been building since the 1980s, with citizens’ assemblies around the world proving that they can offer solutions to seemingly intractable problems. It is high-time that the multilateral system caught that wave. As suggested by an emerging multi-stakeholder coalition, a permanent Global Citizens’ Assembly could have two components: a core assembly that brings together 300 to 1000 people selected by civic lottery to be demographically representative of the global population, and satellite community assemblies that can be organized by anyone. The assembly could mobilize on an annual basis to co-create solutions to pressing global challenges, which could then be amplified through a “cultural wave” of artists and influencers, and an “impact network” of governments, organizations, and individuals who are committed to endorsing the assembly’s proposals. Clearly then, there is no dearth of creative ideas on how to give citizens a greater say in global governance.

This is a huge opportunity for Namibia and Germany, the co-facilitators of the Summit of the Future, to do something memorable. Not only could it rescue the Pact for the Future, which is supposed to “reinvigorate” the multilateral system, from falling flat, it would be an invaluable legacy for next and future generations – particularly poignant, given that Namibia is such a young country.

Namibia and Germany then, should use the fast-approaching UN Civil Society Conference to sit down with global civil society and explore ways to bring citizens into the heart of Global Governance. They then need to bring their findings back to New York and figure out with their fellow Member States how the Pact for the Future can put people first. Finally, they should use the Summit of the Future to boost initiatives, such as a Global Citizens’ Assembly, with a view to using the 80th anniversary of the UN, the selection of a new Secretary-General, and post 2030 Agenda negotiations to make citizen participation in global governance the new normal. Only then can the Summit of the Future begin to deliver on its promise of a multilateral system that is, “better prepared to manage the challenges we face now and, in the future, for the sake of all humanity and for future generations”.

Aishwarya Machani is a Next Generation Fellow with the UN Foundation and UN Advocacy Co-Lead, Iswe Foundation.