As highlighted in Part I of the Blog last week, the 21st century has brought dramatic changes to the entire international society. Since WWII significant changes in the world economy have had a great impact on the international system. The current COVID-19 crisis which has accelerated an economic recession, unemployment and technological revolution also has implications for the balance of power in the World. Given these circumstances, old schemes and organizations will not meet the requirements of these new normal times. As the World leaders at the UN General Assembly made pronouncements this week, it is clear that the global crisis has posed new challenges to multilateralism on which the viability of the UN hinges. While tensions escalated when the Presidents of the USA and China squared off in their speeches to the annual General Assembly, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres lamented most poignantly on the great global risk.
Negotiating Frameworks for Mitigating Global Risks
The current global risks require the United Nations (UN) to refashion its framework. There are calls for UN reforms. It means enhancing the aspirations of the UN Charter by moving away from the focus of the 1950s UN four-decade cluster of development programmes and adopting specific target-oriented programmes for the transformation of economic, environmental, and social systems.
What emerged in the contemporary era were intensified activities of North-South negotiating frameworks in the 1970s. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for example came to the fore, unilaterally raising the price of oil. It created a new atmosphere with developing countries exercising leverage in the international arena. Consequently two major conditions provided the backdrop for a new phase on North-South negotiations, namely, the structural changes needed in the world economy and the importance of collective self-reliance by developing countries. It was the era when the Group of 77 of which Guyana is the current chair initiated a new international economic order.
In the succeeding decade of the 1980s, developing countries advocated for policy regulations in the development process. Meanwhile, the deepening of the debt burden in many developing countries beckoned their recourse to the multilateral financial institutions. This resulted in the prescription of structural adjustment by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that was to become the overriding mantra in development discourse.
Contractionary monetary policies initiated by the development partners led to dramatic negative consequences for external balance of payments and economic growth rates of developing countries. This new environment had institutional consequences for the role of the UN and its agencies. It ushered in the focus on globalization and liberalization already addressed in Part I of the blog. But it also provided a catalyst for a multilateral approach to reducing global inequalities and poverty through the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000.
Millennium Development Goals and Lessons Learned
The MDGs were a set of eight definitive commitments in the area of poverty reduction, education, gender, health, environment and trade and partnerships. Subsequent to its adoption, several recommendations were made to enhance the MDGs, including improvements in the gender focus by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). The MDG targets and their implementations yielded significant lessons for the role of multilateralism. UNDP 2010 report. Among the major ones that were a success in international cooperation depended on:
In the final analysis, the unique and special circumstances of the vulnerable that were ignored in the MDGs are being corrected in the broader policy recommendations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiated in 2015. Whether they will be the driving force behind the current template for unilateralism is still in question.
Conclusion: COVID-19 a major challenge to the Sustainable Development Goals
GOFAD Blogs have previously covered the various elements of the SDGs. Here, however, we propose that the greatest challenge to the UN 2030 Development Multilateral Agenda and the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals is the COVID–19 Pandemic. The economic impact of COVID-19 is illustrated in the emergence of a vicious circle of debt and austerity policies which threatens the development progress in many countries. A recent study by the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research predicts that the pandemic could increase global poverty for approximately half a billion people, about 8% of the total human population. In his address to UNGA this week, Mr. Trump who has been a longstanding critic of the United Nations, challenged its multilateral diplomacy as an impediment to his “America First” policy, blamed China for the coronavirus scourge that has traumatized the world and demanded that the United Nations holds China accountable. Mr. Xi, clearly anticipating Mr. Trump’s attacks, portrayed the virus as everyone’s challenge and described China’s response as scientific, generous and responsible.
These are compelling circumstances that call for the UN Member States commemorating its 75thAnniversary to renew commitments to strengthen their efforts in international cooperation and solidarity.
Senior Advisor UN Agenda
Former Director Climate Change
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.