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Experts Discuss Needs, Options for Intergenerational Solidarity

United Nations9 May 2013: The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) organized an expert panel on intergenerational solidarity to contribute to the forthcoming report of the UN Secretary-General on the topic, which was requested by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20).

Nikhil Seth, DESA, said the meeting aimed to enrich that report, which would be submitted to the next session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 68). Seth noted that, while intergenerational solidarity is embedded in the concept of sustainable development as several treaties, questions remain as to: how to define future generations' needs and rights; current generations' duties in this regard; and what can be done to protect those needs and rights.

Ian Goldin, University of Oxford, said that, due to our increasing connectivity, what we do now affects others and future generations at an exponentially growing rate. The challenge is to translate knowledge about the long-term impacts of our action into present behaviors and choices, and to make decisions that go beyond political cycles and news cycles. He reported that the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations is developing recommendations in this regard and is expected to issue its report later this year.

Edith Brown Weiss, Georgetown University Law Centre, said that, while states remain central actors in the world, there are now more participants – making the world both more “bottom-up” and more fragmented – and humans have become a force of nature, noting that we are in an "anthropocene epoch." As a result, intergenerational equity must become central to our legal framework and common values, and considerations of the human environment must be represented in today's decisions. She outlined three elements of intergenerational fairness: comparable options (the diversity of the natural resource base is maintained); comparable quality (the world is not left in worse condition); and equitable rights of access.

Martin Evans, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and London School of Economics, presented empirical evidence of several mechanisms that transmit poverty and well-being between generations, including: parental income, maternal stress, childhood nutrition and health, education, and cognitive development. Evans concluded that any new framework or institution for intergenerational solidarity must build on established protections of children's rights and well-being.

Kate Offerdahl, IISD, representing Youth and Future Generations in the UN, cited a “stark lack of input” from the billions of children and youth currently affected by UN decisions. She said that, despite governments' expressions of commitment, it is difficult for them to make sacrifices to ensure youth and future generations' needs will be fulfilled. She recalled the proposal for an ombudsman for future generations, which was not included in the Rio+20 outcome document, and said the area most in need of new thinking is long-term institutional oversight. Offerdahl spoke of the power of the UN to listen, and urged Member States to brainstorm together with younger generations, since governments "will create the framework, and we will carry it forward.”

Following the expert panel, summary materials will be produced to inform continued consideration of this issue, including the Secretary-General's report. [Concept Note] [Meeting Webpage] [IISD RS Sources]