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The UN Optimist Behind the Summit of the Future


Michele Griffin
Michèle Griffin, director of the Summit of the Future for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in her office, New York City, May 15, 2024. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says, referring to the summit’s purpose to enable the UN to adapt to a rapidly changing world. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

With the Summit of the Future now a mere three months away, opinions about its chances to produce meaningful change for the United Nations if not the world are extremely mixed. The promised documents related to the summit — the Pact for the Future, Digital Global Compact and Declaration on Future Generations — are running through their second major draft reviews, while time is running out. 

Although there is still a dogged investment in the process by member states, it’s unclear if the summit and its key agreements will heal a globe riven by deep crisis and shocking aggressions.

Yet the people working tirelessly on the summit’s process and documents express undying optimism in its potential. One true believer is Michèle Griffin, the director of the summit, representing the UN secretary-general’s office. 

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she is quick to remind anyone who asks what the summit could do for Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan.

The marathon started in September of 2020, when Secretary-General António Guterres — observing a world body unable to respond adequately to the Covid crisis — drafted “Our Common Agenda,” a detailed vision statement of how the UN can better achieve its goals of multilateral governance in a calamitous world.

Since 2020, even more shocking crises have ensued, and the UN has proven woefully incapable of stopping them, which makes people demand more sprints and fewer marathons. But the process for a course redirection — ideally starting with unanimous pomp at September’s two-day summit with global leaders — is soldiering on, with member states now firmly in control of the tasks ahead, led by the co-facilitators, Germany and Namibia. 

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As the process unfolds through member state negotiations, however, Griffin and her colleagues remain deeply involved, shepherding the procedure along. 

Although Griffin has focused on the summit for several years, she has been policy adviser and director of policy planning for several UN secretaries-general for more than two decades. She holds a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a B.A. in European studies from Trinity College Dublin. 

In an interview with Griffin in mid-May, in her corner office on the 37th floor, she was both generous and extremely careful, navigating the narrow path that constrains Guterres’s office during an intense negotiating process that highlights the complicated dynamic between the UN leader and its 193 member states. 

As to which heads of states will be coming to the Sept. 22-23 summit, Griffin would not say nor confirm if Pope Francis, rumored to be invited, will be there. “We are expecting high level attendance,” Griffin said. “I couldn’t possibly comment, but if rumors are out there, what can I do?”

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The questions and answers below are curated from the May 15 interview as well as a background interview in April and email exchanges. The responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

PassBlue: Let’s start by getting a description of your role in the Summit of the Future and its Pact for the Future.

Griffin: My role is to support the secretary-general and the senior UN leadership in developing the vision for this summit, the concrete proposals we have put on the table and advocating for those ideas as much as we can, while also recognizing that not all of them will get traction in the end. My team and I offer our support to the co-facilitators [Germany and Namibia] where appropriate. We also have a public-facing role, trying to explain the summit — and indeed multilateralism more generally — to people so that they can engage with what is going on and feel more confidence in us.

PassBlue: How do you navigate talking about this event and these documents out in the world, particularly to the general public?

Griffin: We realize that for the public, global governance is not interesting, and frankly, nor should it be. Because just like government at the national level, I think most people don’t want to have to think about how the sausage gets made. They just want their lives. They just want to go do their jobs, look after their kids, live in safety, have enough to eat. Of course, there’s loads of nerds and geeks who love global governance, as I do, and could talk about it till the cows come home. But I have no illusions that most people do. And most people shouldn’t. I think in some respects the ways in which, especially young people, are deeply interested in and concerned about global governance right now is a sign of our failure to do it properly.

PassBlue: So now there is a second draft of the Pact for the Future and there will soon be second drafts of the accompanying Global Digital Compact and Declaration on Future Generations. Focusing on the first document, since January, when the first draft came out, what big changes are you seeing, or at least the highlights? 

Griffin: There is some very clear and strong wording on disarmament, including calls for legally binding instruments on things like outer space, new and emerging technologies, language on AI and being very careful about the military applications of AI. And a strong call on the nuclear weapons states to reduce their arsenals. There’s good language on not allowing military spending to be implemented at the expense of development spending. There’s stronger stuff on climate, building on the last COP [Conference of States Parties to the Paris climate agreement], and looking forward to the next one. A lot of the language tries to take us forward in some respect and signals to an upcoming moment on the calendar a level of ambition that might not otherwise have been there. 

There’s still no Security Council reform language, but the co-chairs of the intergovernmental negotiations on Council reform (Austria and Kuwait) are working to generate language that will get inserted into the text. A first draft was also circulated last night. So, for the first time we have possible language on Council reform. It will be inserted in June, and it’s still being negotiated separately. 

There’s strong language on youth participation at the UN and at the national level. The SG [secretary-general] has written to every head of state and government, inviting them personally to the summit, but also urging them to include a youth delegate in their formal delegations. We think that would be powerful. There’s language on outer space and the sustainability and better governance of outer space, now that there’s so many actors up there, with a very clear kind of tasking to COPUOS, which is the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It doesn’t have all UN member states in it, because it only has those member states that have satellites. But I wouldn’t be surprised if more countries start to try to be members and part of that conversation.

The latest draft of the Pact for the Future, the summit’s main “outcome” document, was presented to UN member states in the General Assembly Hall on May 15, 2024. Many delegates confessed they hadn’t had time to read it for the session, but some of those who did declared it problematic while a few fully praised it. Here, Namibia’s envoy, Neville Gertze, left, and Osama Abdel Khalek of Egypt. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

PassBlue: In our initial conversation, you talked about small states and finding their way in this summit process, which could easily be dominated by the larger, more traditionally powerful states. 

Griffin: It’s inevitable that smaller missions with fewer diplomats have a hard time managing across a very busy landscape of negotiations. In the early phases of this Common Agenda and Summit of the Future process, the bigger countries, but also the more motivated — and in some cases, negatively motivated players — had a disproportionate impact on the narrative. Disingenuous narratives were created, people trying to say that this was somehow in competition with the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], which it’s absolutely not. If you read the reports, it’s all about adapting global governance so it can deliver the SDGs more effectively. But negative narratives took hold partly because countries who had other agendas were more organized and more out there. 

More recently, thanks to a big group of small states that have come together to be a voice in the room, they are speaking up more. This is a very complex set of proposals, and not always easy to digest and understand. For a lot of countries, the “what’s in this for me?” is not always obvious. But I think as developments in the real world have shown why we put these proposals on the table, countries have started to say: “Oh, I get it. This is relevant for me, and I do need to be an active participant in this discussion.”

Outer space is a good example. The SG, by bringing these issues into the summit, was essentially saying that developments are happening so fast on this issue and the actors with the most power to be up there are defining the reality for everybody. By insisting on a UN conversation, he’s making sure that all 193 member states are in the room when we discuss how we want entities to behave in outer space. 

PassBlue: The inclusivity on future-focused issues also brings us to the AI discussion, which is forward-looking but runs the risk of leaving countries and people behind if they don’t find a place in the conversations. What is the vision for UN involvement in this quandary?

Griffin: The SG points to a world in which much of the power to really shape people’s lives rests in hands that are totally unaccountable. We’re looking at a world in which private actors control satellite access for huge populations. And we know how reliant we are on data and communications technology. Nobody is suggesting that the UN not remain an intergovernmental organization where member states exercise their responsibilities at the global level. But there are very few issues now where the power lies solely in the hands of governments.

We must understand that if we are going to achieve the SDGs, if we are going to manage digital developments — whether on AI or other issues — if we’re going to keep people healthy and give everybody the same life chances, we can’t ignore the power that rests in these private hands. And we must think about how to put in place regulations and codes of conduct at a global level and at national levels that create the conditions in which private actors behave responsibly and don’t simply perpetuate inequalities. 

Unfortunately, for some countries in the global South, this sounds like an attempt to disadvantage them in a whole new way. Many of them feel that they haven’t been fairly represented in global governance. On the one hand, we’re saying we want to change that. We want to increase the representation of developing countries in some of these bodies. But then they hear us saying we want to think about how we engage with private actors. We’re not saying that we’re going to flood global governance with global North companies. Not at all. It’s more about saying we need to find a way, in the SG’s term, for networked, inclusive multilateralism and create conditions in which power is used for the good of most of humanity and not for the few.

PassBlue: This brings us to the discussion of civil society involvement, which is a more ongoing conversation. Just at the beginning of May, you were at the Nairobi Civil Society Conference, focusing on the Summit of the Future, and the revised draft of the pact was held until that happened. Could you tell us about some takeaways from that event?

Griffin: The civil society conference was amazing. Four thousand people, most from the global South, thousands of young people, amazing energy. The SG came and President Ruto [of Kenya] came. It was a moment of enormous positivity and pressure from civil society for this summit to be meaningful. Most important, the conference was a good example of civil society not just talking about civil society participation. Sometimes you have meetings where the civil society representatives focus very much on getting more of a seat at the table. But a lot of the discussion was about the substance in the rest of the pact — future generations, digital cooperation and sustainability, foresight, financing. On each of these big issues, impact coalitions are forming between member states. And not just the states in the global North. Coalitions of different actors coming together to say, we’re going to be a voice, putting pressure on other states but also creating momentum and action ourselves. 

Dmitry Chumakov, deputy permanent representative of Russia, said he’d actually read the draft, and declared that some ambitions in it “represent our worst nightmares,” without providing details. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

[PassBlue asked Griffin about Security Council reform in April during a background interview, and again after we saw a copy of the proposed text from the co-facilitators distributed on May 12. The below responses combine the responses]

PassBlue: The current proposed language is strong on expanding the overall numbers on Council membership; addresses the lack of representation for Africa; and establishes the “question of the veto” as a “key element of Security Council reform.” Where do you think we are in these ambitions?

Griffin: If there’ somebody who thinks that we’re going to get a decision on new permanent seats, they will be disappointed because that’s not necessarily going to happen, at least not immediately. But that was never going to happen. But I do think that we have a very good chance of getting a strong political signal about delivering Security Council reform in the future. So, I think that we will get something very meaningful, but that depends on how much pressure is brought to bear between now and August. That’s a good example of where those who care about these things need to keep the pressure up, but not in a jaded, fatalistic, cynical way.

It also must be understood as part of a broader set of ideas. Some of the reform of the Security Council is frankly about using the General Assembly better and not having so much riding on the Council alone. There’s a proposal in the document for what’s called an emergency platform. The idea is that crises in the future are going to take very different forms from how they looked in the past. Covid was an example. It went from being a health crisis to a human rights, socioeconomic, tourism industry and education crisis almost overnight.

What is important in this summit is not to isolate one reform idea but to look at the whole global architecture and to ask ourselves whether it is functioning how we need it to. Don’t look at the Security Council in isolation from the General Assembly and the other principal organs. If the last three years have shown us anything, it is that a lot of people around the world feel that the whole mechanism is not working. Developing countries have not had the support they need to manage a constant series of global shocks. Nobody feels satisfied that we are on top of the climate challenge. The conflicts and violence in places such as Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and Haiti are absolutely tragic, evidence that we are still not living up to the ideals of the UN Charter to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. 

PassBlue: The emergency platform seems like an innovation to make the UN function differently.  Could you explain where that idea comes from and how that would work?

Griffin: Crises will look different in the future, so responses must look different too. Our architecture is still very structured around these very traditional sectors. So you’ve got your health ministry, your education ministry, your foreign ministry, your development ministry. So the idea behind the emergency platform is to basically say, that’s not how the world is going to work in the future. And we need serious ability to pull together in response to crises that will look quite different. It was proposed first in the Common Agenda report, and that was written very much in the context of Covid, where we were seeing the whole world facing the same threat at the same time for the first time in 75 years. The SG looked and said, I need to convene a lot of actors very quickly in the face of a major crisis, more effectively than I am proving to be in the face of Covid.

PassBlue: What comes next in the march toward the summit in September?

Griffin: From now through early July, there’ll be negotiations on the text. Those are the opportunities for countries to find their allies. We would like this to be a negotiation that doesn’t fall completely along north-south or east-west lines. Member states have more that unites them than divides them. And there’s a lot more common ground. That’s really the key. So [it’s good to have] countries find that common ground and recognize where it is and the need for change. Change is scary in a complex world, and it feels safer to stick with the status quo.

PassBlue: Tell us some of the details around the planning and programming of the summit? Will it feel different than other events?

Griffin: We will have two action days [Sept. 20-21] and then two mandated formal summit days [Sept. 22-23]. The action days will feature multistakeholder engagement and initiatives to spur additional commitments and momentum beyond what is agreed in the formal Pact and annexes. There will be a dedicated day of youth programming, but young people will also participate throughout. The mandated summit days are fairly prescribed by the modalities resolution and will involve a plenary as well as simultaneous interactive dialogues. Overall, we are aiming for a look and feel that is very much about the future — both its promise and its peril.

PassBlue: So, futuristic? Any specifics?

Griffin: Let’s just say there are some very cool space-age and digital ideas coming at us, but I can’t give details as we’re in the early planning stages.

PassBlue: For a last question, with all that you’re planning and hoping for, how much do you and the other organizers of the summit feel the weight of restoring public faith in the UN and saving its reputation? 

Griffin: I personally feel it. I probably shouldn’t speak for others. A lot of member states say that this process is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy landscape; this is one effort to think long term, find ways to work together and set aside differences as well as the immediate disputes. Business as usual is not an option, because that doesn’t mean things staying the same. It means things are getting worse. This summit is really supposed to be the moment at which we do a very meaningful course correct. 

The most important overall outcome in September is that people wake up the day after the summit believing that we can work together — despite it all — to solve our biggest shared problems. People should feel a bit more hope in multilateralism and trust in one another than they do at present. We know that we won’t deliver everything overnight in September, but if we can make meaningful progress towards these goals, then we will feel that we have done our job. 

We welcome your comments on this article..  What are your thoughts?

Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at

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The UN Optimist Behind the Summit of the Future
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Lily Egan
8 days ago

Thank you for this article! Can hardly believe this summit is 3 months away.

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