A case for Ombudspersons for Future Generations

Publication Date: 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011 - 12:18pm


Guest Author - Alice Vincent - World Future Council
A case for Ombudspersons for Future Generations

There are many Rio dinosaurs roaming the planet at the moment. By that, I mean actors across the political scene – from civil society, to civil servants, to academics and practitioners – who actively took part in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit over twenty years ago. Their institutional memory and experience is invaluable and their knowledge of the issues second-to-none.

But, from a young person’s perspective, we can look at the years since Rio 1992 with a fresh and discerning eye. We are not so much tired as highly alarmed by the past 20 years of big ideas and big plans, with little to show for them. Action has not followed the rhetoric. If we are to make Rio+20 count, if we are to make real steps towards transforming our economic paradigm to a green economy, and if we are going to become truly accountable to future generations, then we need to put in place a mechanism to ensure the long term view.

The blight of short-termism is one that crops up across any number of political and economic spheres. We hear how the financial markets are skewed by short-term profits. We hear how the brevity of politician’s time in office undermines any effort to put in place long term plans and objections. We hear how the consumer and the citizen, particularly in the developed world, are more inclined to ‘spend today’ rather than save for the future.

We are working on a new campaign to tackle exactly this plight. We propose an Ombudsman for Future Generations. Having an Ombudsperson for Future Generations at all governance levels, international, national and local, would provide a systematic official champion and watchdog for sustainable development. This institution would safeguard and balance the long-term interests of the youth today and generations to come, against short-term economic and political interests.

Monitoring policy implementation in order to meet agreed sustainability goals, the Ombudspersons work to ensure coherence and synergies across all governing departments. Ombudspersons for Future Generations would hold governing bodies and private actors accountable if they do not deliver, as well as connecting young people and society as a whole to the core of policymaking – improving monitoring, accountability, access, and sensitivity for existing and emerging issues.

Public participation has been declared as the core of sustainable development and has to be strengthened. Youth in particular are underrepresented in domestic and international political decision-making. An Ombudsperson is a citizen representative that acts as a meaningful, decentralised and independent watchdog on implementation, building a bridge between citizens and politics, and covering many of the implementation gaps identified in the UN Secretary Synthesis Report.

The governments participating in Rio+20 need a short list of tangible solutions that can be implemented right away. As outlined in the Synthesis Report: Systematic institutional and governance reforms at national, regional and international levels are essential to achieve sustainable development.

This proposal also addresses the first theme of Rio+20 on the Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. Many governments are pursuing suggestions for the green economy while missing the fundamental social angle and the governance of such policy implementation. We are again at risk of failing to link the three pillars of sustainable development, and in so doing, risking repetition of our previous errors of approaching each issue in isolation. An Ombudsperson for Future Generations would ensure a holistic assessment of the social and environmental angles in the implementation process of greening our economies.

We need an improved framework for better mobilisation of the people: sustainable development has become a technocratic concept, disconnected from its original Brundtland report definition of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Policies may fall victim to election cycles, but solid institutional infrastructure sets a long-term direction. There have been sufficient declarations in the past two decades and there must be demands for a side-stepping from the business as usual diplomacy and the adoption of binding institutional reforms that will really put international and domestic politics back on a sustainable track.