Friday, April 19, 2024
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We can avert a dystopian future: A renewed agenda for global social progress

The above statement encapsulates the guiding principle of the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP), a unique endeavour launched in Paris in 2014 by a global group of social scientists. In reference with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is now often called the “IPCC of the social”. After four years of collegial work of 350+ contributors worldwide, the Panel published the first IPSP Report Rethinking Societies for the 21st Century and the companion book —A Manifesto for Social Progress: Ideas for a Better Society in 2018.

The Panel is an independent organization based in Paris. Its three main bodies —The Honorary Committee, the Advisory Board and the Coordination Council— are composed of high-level/high-impact personalities with relevant competence and experience: international scholars, civil society organizations actors, social innovators, business leaders, (former) policymakers, etc.

The Advisory Board, which held its inaugural meeting in September 2023, has 74 members, six of them from Africa. The Panel ensures in all its activities a balanced distribution across genders, experience, geography, disciplines and themes to bring the most relevant expertise and solutions to society.

The challenges of environmental degradation, social inequalities, democratic decline, disruptive technological innovation, and dysfunctions in global cooperation have never been more pressing. The recent crises of a global pandemic, wars, and extreme weather have threatened social cohesion and democratic institutions, revealed new vulnerabilities, and laid bare the weaknesses of prevailing development approaches.

To address these challenges, we —a group of several hundred scholars, social entrepreneurs and advocates— believe that we must recognize the mutual interdependence of these challenges along with the diversity of local and national contexts, so as to fully grasp and unpack the complexity of systemic transformation and the timelines of ongoing dynamics on Earth and in societies. This is essential to imagine adequate solutions and to make the most of the emerging opportunities.

A narrative for social progress is available

A vision of a desirable future is also essential. A broad outline for better societies includes: creating an inclusive and responsible economy by taming markets and corporations through responsible socio-economic and environmental regulatory systems and by fostering economic and social organizations with a broader purpose; bringing circularity into our value chains and way of life; reducing social inequalities and empowering people through universal services and through pre- and redistribution; deepening democracy through participatory and deliberative mechanisms and better information systems; enhancing global cooperation to preserve common goods such as biodiversity and to improve resilience under global changes; and harnessing technology for positive impact.

The IPSP gained international recognition in 2018 for offering human societies a powerful narrative to accompany the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It offered a vision of progress, in the form of a broad picture of the type of institutions and reforms that, allowing for substantial variations around the world, might realize a “better” society, inspired by values of equality, freedom, emancipation, participation and inclusion.

Renewing a new bigpush for the transition towards better societies

Many of the solutions for better societies already exist, in the form of sectoral implementation of good public policies, or inspiring but isolated civil society initiatives. Multiple actors, especially from civil society, contribute to this agenda in myriad ways and constitute a vibrant pool from which knowledge and momentum can be drawn.

Although many alliance efforts are underway, there is no unified global coalition fighting the obstacles to social progress, and alone they do not suffice to counter the negative social, environmental and governance externalities. However, they need to be adapted to local conditions, cast in long-term systemic visions and narratives of better futures, and co-constructed, promoted and implemented by fluid coalitions of public, private and non-governmental actors.

The clear identification of the main causes of these negative externalities is key to develop a design, a sequencing, and an implementation of actions that would transform the dynamics at play.This recognition forms the basis for our open question, that motivates the new cycle of the International Panel on Social Progress (2024-2027): How can we help coalitions of actors to emerge and to organize, and how can we help nurture them, so as to implement the social progress agenda?

Towards a more impactful globalinitiative

In 2023, the Panel decided to reconvene, in a larger and more inclusive format. It will keep the scientific objectivity and the independence that have become its signature. But it will now engage in co-construction with stakeholders and member-based organizations to ensure greater relevance of its work for change-makers, and thus aim at much greater impact. It will gather cross-sectoral and trans-disciplinary expertise, from science and from practice, to provide a comprehensive, systemic understanding of the complex dynamics of multi-actor interactions, with a special attention devoted to the Global South and to underrepresented voices.

Starting in 2024, the Panel will develop innovative formats and tools to support change-makers and to impact processes leading to the transition. It will work towards operationalizing the social progress agenda as a new global horizon designing reforms and transformations that address the structural flaws of current economic and social institutions and regulations, unleashing the potential for social change by supporting dissemination of social innovations and addressing the biases of power realities and strengthening democratic participation at all levels to enhance the legitimacy of collective decisions.

Promoting global security and solidarity to foster global cooperation for planetary well-being and conflict resolution and rethinking our relationship with living organisms in order to respect the system of complex and dynamic interactions in which we live will also be part of the agenda.

The Panel will build collective intelligence to share knowledge and help actors connect and build effective coalitions for change, with a special attention to mapping the power structures that undergird the current situation, and the systemic interdependence of challenges, issues, sectors, and populations. An International Platform for Social Progress as a web source will also be available as of June 2024to crowdsource the transformative initiatives and projects throughout the world and to provide a guide to the most inspiring (and most replicable) ones. Other planned activities include: First World Social Progress Forum (October 2024) and Worldwide consultation on Social Progress (December 2024).

The Panel will map and gather forces that are inherently attached to the social progress agenda, including oppressed populations and their advocates. The momentum gathered by the Panel will help change the nature of the debate, empower the widest set of stakeholders, and put pressure on governments and businesses to better align their goals with the social progress agenda. Intergenerational dimensions will be central to our work and younger generations will be mobilized through networking, and social media.

Contributing to the International Panel on Social Progress

There will be many options and possibilities to join the Panel and to contribute to its work: from the local to the global, from inner communities to larger networks, from civil society to the largest corporations, from city governments to supranational organisations, from education circles to the general and social media.

Technology will help us translate, communicate, transfer knowledge, and connect change-makers. The diversity of contributors will match the diversity of users of the knowledge base developed by the Panel.

A first series of work streams initiated by the Panel will include Mapping out the systemic interactions and power structures of societal challenges, reorganizing the information system as a public good in the age of social media and artificial intelligence, developing a framework for an ecological rule of law, defining performance for governments and businesses that reflects social progress, and promoting global solidarity as a channel for global citizenship.

The Panel welcomes proposals for contributions as well as suggestions for additional topics.

We will be able to avert dystopian futures only by coalescing all those who daily and relentlessly act for better societies, often in isolation, and without the media visibility they deserve.

A strong, diverse, inclusive, innovative, and global coalition of the willing is called upon, now at the peak of its capacities, toward sustainable and cohesive pathways.

The task is huge and urgent. Tremendous opportunities for positive change await us and must be seized now.

(Professor Emeritus Bahru Zewde is a member of the International Advisory Board.)

Contributed by Emeritus Prof. Bahru Zewde

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