Re-thinking governance in the Anthropocene

December 23, 2020


The 2020 Human Development Report provides a visionary take on development and the interdependence of people and nature and makes a compelling case for a global transition from the current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption to a more sustainable system. This is not a technical process of moving from a fossil fuel-based to a low-carbon system, but rather a deeply political process that will disrupt vested interests in the status quo. All transitions are bound to have winners and losers.

We are living in a time of unprecedented compounding of global crises; the health pandemic, the global economic crisis and the climate and nature crisis among others. All countries and all governance systems are struggling to adapt. How do we overcome them and emerge to build forward better? We are presented with a unique opportunity to address global risks through a fresh lens—to redesign economies and governance systems in a timeframe and at a scale without precedent. As the Human Development Report notes, societies today have the ability to act on this evidence like never before—and to make choices that divert us from potentially catastrophic paths. But what kind of governance arrangements do we need to promote inclusive human development, protect the planet and provide a pathway to new social contracts? Over recent weeks and as part of UNDP’s future of governance consultation series, we have been reflecting on exactly these issues.

We need governance that is responsive and accountable and that produce equitable outcomes, including for future generations. We need to create governance systems that can adapt to the constantly changing needs, expectations, rights, capabilities of all actors and institutions that make up our societies. Such a reset will require deliberative dialogue and engagement with a multiplicity of actors (business, civil society, politicians, communities, labour unions) and political coalitions at all levels. UNDP has decades of experience in facilitating multi-stakeholder policy dialogues approaches to tackle complex, systemic issues. There is no reason why our societal values cannot change to make us able to expand freedoms while living in balance with the planet.

People are engaging with the governance of their societies and the globe in ways that we have not seen in recent decades. We see a yearning for transformative politics and a transformative vision and purpose. People are seizing the online spaces for the debate and dialogue that is at the heart of functioning societies and building new communities of belonging. But we have not yet worked out how to mediate and moderate this for the collective good, guard effectively against those who wish to manipulate and distort, as well as understand the risks of holding our societal debates on privately-owned platforms. UNDP’s work to address information pollution is an important contribution to this, but there is much still to be done to support the informed and engaged societies which will bring about change.

And we will neither achieve our collective aspirations for sustainability, nor be able to take the leap forward in terms of human development (and be on track in achieving the SDGs and multilateral environmental agreements) with our current institutional frameworks. We must move beyond state-centric approaches to multi-level, multi-stakeholder governance, facilitated by the digital era in which we find ourselves. The COVID response has highlighted that we need multi-level governance systems that allow for much more networked ways of working, recognizing that the boundaries between ‘local’, ‘national’ and ‘regional’, and ‘global’ are all much more fluid than they were and include a multitude of actors with different interests, expectations and capabilities. UNDP’s ground-breaking work with social innovation platforms in Asia-Pacific provides important directions to build on. The role of subnational governance and local government is increasingly important—for it is here where decisions and actions have a direct impact on people’s lives. Local and global are not separate—they must be addressed distinctly, but they also need intermediation, and we are seeing municipalities becoming part of global governance structures.

As we look to recover from the COVID crisis, we must acknowledge that communities, many of whom depend directly on nature, are part of the solution in moving to more sustainable economic models. However, without international governance systems supporting the kinds of partnerships that are necessary we will not be successful in moving towards common goals that leave no one behind. As we heard loud and clear during the launch of the HDR this week; “it’s now or never”.  Now is the time for us to rethink governance to reset the relationship between people and planet.