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Putting well-being and the interests of future generations at the heart of foreign policy

Article by Sophie Howe

March 3, 2020

Putting well-being and the interests of future generations at the heart of foreign policy

Our world is uncertain. Our political system is uncertain. Our people are uncertain. Whether we look at Brexit, tensions between the Middle East and the United States, technological advancements, climate change or any other potentially detrimental international area of concern, we see an unpredictable future. Our current system is failing us and we need change.

The answer lies in values. A values-based foreign policy would allow for an international landscape of cooperation and action rather than countries constantly grappling for pole position in global markets and arguing over natural resources. If every individual nation was globally responsible, the world would look after itself. If each country took responsibility for its consumption and emissions, for its greed and exploitative international trade relationships, for the narrow-mindedness of politicians and governments so intent on being popular they lose sight of their own ideals, goals and capabilities for real progressive change, we could create a future of certainty and hope. As leaders in today’s world, we need to understand how placing well-being and protecting the interests of future generations at the heart of foreign policy can provide a platform for progressive change and allow us to create a future we look forward to being a part of – a future we are proud to say we helped to shape.

People’s attitudes are changing. Whilst in some areas the changes could be seen as regressive, in many others we are seeing more progressive ideologies and expectations, often driven by younger generations who are less prejudiced, more concerned about the planet and more focused on having a life well-lived than a bank account well-fed.[1] This push for change in the UK creates a platform for the younger generation to be heard. Wales itself has created a youth parliament and recently passed a Senedd Elections Bill reducing the voting age in these elections to include 16- and 17-year-olds.[2] We are seeing a suite of these new laws accommodating the voices and views of the next generation and it is vital that we listen to these voices if we are to safeguard their futures against our past mistakes.

As future generations begin to be included in the process of shaping their own societies, the people with the power must show that their inclusion is not a token gesture but a genuine step towards protecting them from the damage that is being done. We as leaders cannot fall victim to what Matthew Syed terms ‘cognitive dissonance’: ‘when mistakes are too threatening to admit to, so they are reframed or ignored…the internal fear of failure: how we struggle to admit mistakes to ourselves’.[3] Future generations have a right to meet their needs and we must overcome our fear of failure to allow their success. Whether we look at obesity, climate change, poverty or any other major threat the human race faces, we need political infrastructure that is conducive to action. As leaders, we cannot afford not to try.

It would be unfair, both to our peers and to our descendants, to give in to ignorance and scorn the clear demand from the new generation of British people for more action on many globally consequential problems. Extinction Rebellion membership hit 100,000 in 2019 and the UK Government declared a climate emergency after huge public pressure to officially recognise the issue.[4] There has been increasing public outcry at the marginalisation of certain groups in society, with one in 50 UK households being forced to resort to food banks in 2018–19 as over three million food parcels were given out.[5] We have also seen a rise in the number of social businesses as the economy slowly starts to merge with notions of social value. Consumers are becoming increasingly morally conscientious and are channelling their money into worthwhile causes and businesses that take into account the consequences of their actions, with social enterprises contributing £60bn to the UK economy and employing two million people.[6]

This push towards more sustainable action in all walks of public life means that policymakers and governments are being pressured to push these issues to the top of their agenda.

Wales is a leader in this area. To tackle the age-old problem of short-term decision-making, the National Assembly for Wales drafted a groundbreaking piece of legislation centring well-being and future generations in the minds of every sector in Wales: The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 (WFGA).[7] This act requires each of the 44 main public bodies in Wales (health boards, local authorities, fire and rescue services, national bodies like Sport Wales and Natural Resources Wales and, significantly, the Welsh Government itself) to take decisions ‘in a way which meets today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It sets out seven national well-being goals that as a nation we are aspiring to, and five ways of working that public bodies must demonstrate in how they operate: longer-term, prevention, collaboration, integration and involvement.

As the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, I monitor and advise public bodies on their compliance with the Act and strive to push everyone in Wales to live and act more sustainably. Although I describe this work as an expedition rather than a journey, the Act is beginning to drive change. Just recently, Transport for Wales released a Sustainable Development Plan ‘closely aligned with the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) 2015 Act’, and their recent procurement of a £5 billion rail franchise for Wales, supported by my Office, required companies bidding for the franchise to demonstrate how they would not just deliver a faster, cleaner, greener rail service in Wales, but how they would contribute to each one of our well-being goals.[8] Many initiatives have been undertaken as a result these actions: for example, employing Customer and Community Ambassadors to encourage a greater sense of community; addressing socio-economic disadvantage with cheaper fares for more deprived areas; supporting social enterprises in running their operations on a local level; or providing bicycle storage and well-lit walking routes to stations to encourage physically active travel.

Following in Wales’ footsteps is crucial if Britain is to deviate from its prevailing and potentially catastrophic course. Do we really want to be responsible for a future of economic decline, irreversible environmental damage and nation-wide societal divisions? We cannot go down in history as the generation who stood by and let the world spiral. We must be remembered as dutiful ancestors who stood up and changed the course of history for the better.

The most important way of achieving this is changing mindsets and creating a paradigm shift. The outdated economic model of exponential growth and trading one form of capital for another, certainly at the cost of the planet and often at the cost of its people, must be challenged – something which is recognised in the Welsh legislation and other leading countries such as New Zealand and Finland in making their shift to well-being economics. As Chair of the Network of Institutions for Future Generations, I work with several international organisations in calling for countries to legislate on behalf of future generations. An example of this work can be seen in the United Arab Emirates’ Well-being Strategy 2030, a product of several meetings between myself and the UAE administration, which reflects the principles of our WFGA. I have also worked closely with colleagues in other countries, such as Norway, New Zealand, South Korea, Australia and Canada, along with much high-level institutional collaboration with the United Nations and the OECD to promote sustainable development and well-being.

Despite this promising international cooperation and discussion, there is still a huge tanker full of vested interests to turn if this approach is to become mainstream. The public will have to up the ante and move beyond Veganuary or donating to food banks and really start to demand a fundamental change to the economic status quo if politicians are to change the policymaking habits of a lifetime.

In Wales, our legally binding duties represent both a response to public demand and a bravery of political leadership, which I think shows more than just green shoots of optimism. This approach represents the beginnings of a potentially revolutionary political shift and should also apply to Britain more generally. This may actually be the one thing British party leaders can agree on, given that in the build-up to the December 2019 election each of the major party leaders signed the Future Generations Pledge in support of Lord Bird’s Future Generations Bill.[9] Looking to emulate Wales’s example, should the Bill be passed, there would be a Future Generations Commissioner for the UK working to bring about progressive and sustainable change in Westminster and British politics.

This Future Generations Pledge is a positive first step; however, more needs to be done. We are not expecting immediate overnight results, but we need to continue in the right direction and establish the infrastructure necessary to create the real change we are championing here. This is the point of a values-based approach. We want to induce action and long-term planning that can give future leaders and their societies the capabilities to deal with their problems and their past, which is our present.

Wales provides a shining example of a country attempting to change the attitude of its policymakers through its WFGA. As Britain attempts to find its role in an ever-changing and uncertain world, it must look at this example and follow in Wales’ footsteps by placing values and the needs of future generations at the top of its agenda.


Sophie Howe is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. The world’s only Future Generations Commissioner, her role is to provide advice to the Government and other public bodies in Wales on delivering social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being for current and future generations and assessing and reporting on how they are delivering. Since taking up the role in 2016, she has represented Wales at the UN, the OECD and on a number of international forums, including chairing the Network of Institutions for Future Generations. Prior to this role Sophie was the first Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales. She has also served as an Adviser to two Welsh First Ministers providing policy and political advice on communities, local government, equality and community safety, where she led the development of Wales’ first legislation to tackle violence against women and girls. Sophie was an elected Councillor for nine years and she wrote the 2009 report of the Councillors Commission, which led to legislative reforms on increasing diversity amongst elected members. She has a background in equality and diversity, having managed the legal department of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Sophie is named in the top 100 Business Women in Wales. She is a fellow at Cardiff University Business School and Swansea University, holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and has a degree in law and politics.

[1] Eating Better, Climate change top concern for British teenagers, November 2019,; Matthew Jenkin, Millennials want to work for employers committed to values and ethics, The Guardian, November 2015,

[2] Welsh Youth Parliament,; National Assembly for Wales, Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020,

[3] Syed, M., Black box thinking: The surprising truth about success, London: Hachette UK, September 2015,

[4] BBC News, Extinction Rebellion ‘stemmed from failed bus lane protest’, September 2019,; BBC News, UK Parliament declares climate change emergency, May 2019,

[5] Patrick Butler, Welfare changes drive rising poverty and food bank use, study finds, The Guardian, November 2019,

[6] Barclays Business Banking, Start with purpose: Putting social purpose at the heart of your new venture,

[7] Future Generations: Commissioner for Wales, Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015,

[8] Transport for Wales, Sustainable Development Plan,

[9] John Bird, John Bird: Let’s rewrite the future with a Future Generations Bill, The Big Issue, October 2019,

Photo: A participant at the UK Youth Parliament in November 2015. Photo credit: Roger Harris.

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