The past 18 months have shown us firsthand how fundamentally we are connected by our vulnerabilities — and must also be connected to solve them. Global threats like COVID-19 and climate change know no borders, and we can only address them together. As speakers attested at the recent UNGA76 preview event COVID, Climate and Cooperation: What Will it Take to Fix Our Fractured World?, hosted by the UN Foundation in partnership with the Financial Times, solidarity among and across governments, businesses, and civil society is in everyone’s self-interest, and working together will be even more critical in the face of yet bigger tests to come.

“We’re at a profound turning point,” Elizabeth Cousens, president and chief executive of the UN Foundation, said at the event. “We have to decide whether we’re prepared as societies, as a global community to cooperate and in new ways to solve challenges, like climate and like COVID, that are right on our doorstep — or whether we don’t.”

The world needs to get multiple things right, all at the same time, and rapidly, speakers observed: increasing global availability of COVID-19 vaccines, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, raising climate finance for lower income countries, reducing inequality, rebuilding trust, to name a few. Yet the backdrop to this year’s General Assembly meetings is one of division, with many countries, especially advanced economies, falling short in meeting unified goals on climate, and talking of third vaccine doses, while less advanced economies struggle to reach double-digit vaccination rates and suffer the impact of a climate crisis they did little to create.

Artemio Baldoceda, 83 years old, received his first COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Los Libertadores vaccination site in Lima, Peru, on 24 March 2021. Photo: Jose Vilca/ UNICEF

“The response to COVID is the same as the response to climate,” said Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “We have failed to bring forward a global vaccination program, which protects everybody. We are facing a climate crisis which is having huge impacts on the GDP of these countries, who did nothing to put themselves in this place, and we have no commensurate plan to help, and we have no deal on climate finance.

“And so they will be forgiven for thinking that we talk a lot about our excitement, but we don’t do the basics in terms of lifting everybody up.”

THE WORLD WANTS EFFECTIVE ACTION, NOT JUST PLEDGES

What’s more, closing the gap between pledges and delivery by global leaders will be paramount at this year’s Assembly meeting, panelists stressed during three sessions that made up the event. Several speakers opined about a lack of accountability among more powerful global decision-makers, and many also decried the lack of appreciation of different sources of solutions. Solving the world’s most pressing problems will require the best ideas wherever they come from.

“We will not solve [these problems] by governments acting alone, or business acting alone, or civil society acting alone,” said Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, which last year committed to being carbon negative by 2030. But he added: “You’re not going to solve the world by pledging alone…You’ve got to turn these pledges into effective action.”

Jerome Foster II, a teenager who staged regular climate strikes outside the White House, and now works inside that building as the youngest member of President Joe Biden’s environmental justice advisory board, talked of how Bangladesh, Uganda, and Guatemala — which are among the countries most affected by the climate crisis — have not even been invited to the table to talk about solutions.

“We’re only talking about what rich nations haven’t done and not talking about the fact that richer countries have continued and continue to pollute and destroy communities at the front line,” he said. “What we need right now is political fortitude, financial intelligence, and sociopolitical awareness.”

(In fact, two days later, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh was invited to address the U.S.-hosted Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, where she stressed the impacts on vulnerable countries like her own).

TOWARD A MORE INCLUSIVE MULTILATERALISM

During Fixing Our Fractured World, many speakers, including author, political analyst, and activist Nanjala Nyabola, suggested a need to rethink multilateralism to be less focused on geopolitical and economic power centers.

“Let’s find a third way,” she said. “If we keep our survival contingent on what China is doing and what the West is doing, and what China is fighting about and what the West is fighting about, we’re not going to survive.”

The pandemic, she said, has demonstrated that the idea that solutions must come from economically powerful countries is flawed, pointing to the regional success of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a session on vaccine equity, however, the Director of Africa’s CDC, Dr. John Nkengasong, warned that the pandemic has become an existential crisis for the African continent as some countries face a fourth wave because of their lack of access to vaccines.

“There is such an inequality around vaccine allocation right now,” echoed Dr. Alaa Murabit, UN High-level Commissioner on Health, Employment, and Economic Growth.

Students at the UNICEF-supported Kisuku Primary School in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo. After two months of closure due to COVID-19, schools reopened their doors on Monday, February 22, 2021, across the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: Jean-Claude Wenga /UNICEF

One solution offered in the same session by Devi Sridhar, Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, is to move away from the so-called charity model of richer countries donating to lower-income nations and to build local manufacturing capacity. “The issue has been supply — enough doses,” she said. “We have to avoid that [charity model so] that every country can take care of themselves.”

“We have the tools in our hands to fight and win this pandemic,” Dr. Nkengasong said of the global community. “But our behaviors have really fallen short of the spirit of multilateralism.”

The United Nations Headquarters is located in Midtown Manhattan. Photo: Tomas Eidsvold/ Unsplash

Reinventing how the world comes together to solve global problems emerged as a key theme in sessions throughout the event. “Countries have been unable to learn from each other,” said Ngaire Woods, founding Dean of the Oxford University Blavatnik School of Government.

Global leaders must rethink their approach to multilateralism, speakers said, with an even greater emphasis on inclusion. That means shifting away from relying solely on traditional geopolitical centers of the world for all the solutions, and tapping into expertise wherever they find it, while actively pulling in the voices of those most affected by these worsening crises.

At the UN General Assembly, all eyes will be on world leaders to demonstrate the courage to go beyond the rhetoric and actually deliver the kind of real, coordinated action that brings results for people everywhere, not just some. And to do it with the kind of urgency that today’s set of problems demands. A vision of such innovative forms of cooperation has been put forward by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutérres in his recent Our Common Agenda report — a networked, inclusive style of multilateralism that builds partnerships across different areas of expertise, capacity, and leadership around the world in various sectors.

Ms. Cousens, whose UN Foundation worked with the Secretary-General’s office to gather inputs for the Our Common Agenda report, described this week’s meetings as an inflection point in countries’ ability to come together to find such participatory and meaningful solutions — and quickly.

“The single greatest test before all of us,” she said, “is whether we can rise above our differences, our inertia, our limitations and realize that we face common threats that we absolutely depend on each other to solve.

“There is no alternative to that.”

 

Featured photo: Leonardo Fernandez /UNICEF