The first Secretary-General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie, remarked in 1948, "The United Nations may need to adjust to new realities and respond to unforeseen circumstances that the world is not aware of today—and thus it has to demonstrate its relevance to withstand the test of time." The time is opportune to assess the UN's response to critical issues and challenges raised by Covid-19 and how effectively it can support the international community in these critical times. It's also important to explore whether the UN is headed for a paradigm shift in view of restructured perspectives.
Covid-19, as it stands, shows no signs of letting up. There is a basis for continued concern as a severe crisis looms over critical areas related to economic and social development. It mostly pertains to declining GDP growth levels, food security, unemployment and the external sector. Progress achieved so far in realising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is likely to diminish, should the crisis continue unabated. The whole gamut of globalisation and overall functioning of market mechanism may encounter severe challenges and gradually weaken in the short to medium term. There are concerns regarding high budget deficits, massive shrinking of trade and reduced competitiveness globally.
This may erode development sustainability and propel uncertainties in global geo-politics, stability, peace and security.
The United Nations came up with some policy responses, mainly in the past few weeks, as the virus spread to an alarming extent. The UN secretary-general requested G-20 leaders to support stimulus packages undertaken by countries, inject massive resources for economic recovery, and remove trade restrictions on medical equipment and inputs to fight the virus. In the online summit-level meeting of Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) Contact Group in Response to Covid-19 on May 4, the secretary-general emphasised the need for concerted efforts to end the pandemic, and address its socio-economic impacts and recovery to "build back better". Despite its alertness and policy interventions, the UN obviously needs to plan further in the weeks ahead to effectively tackle the gruelling impacts of Covid-19.
To meet the expectations of the international community, the UN can concentrate on two key aspects: (a) monitoring and strengthening World Health Organization (WHO) programmes in fighting this pandemic; and (b) enabling countries to overcome the severe economic and social challenges due to Covid-19. The overall effectiveness of the UN role at these times will further be reflected through efficient mobilisation of support to and collaboration with countries in mitigating current risks and facilitating recovery.
This is the most critical challenge faced by the UN since it was born in 1945. Obviously, the UN was not around during similar crises, for example, the cholera crisis (1800-1802) and Spanish Flu (1918-1920). Never before has the UN faced such a threat to global peace, security and development. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter (Articles 1(3) and 25) emphasise the importance of food security and health. Understandably, the UN may have strategic barriers and operational limitations even in implementing its priorities. However, to better achieve its Charter objectives, the UN needs to effectively monitor member countries' programmes, especially on food security, massive loss of jobs and sharp decline in global trade. The UN needs to support member countries' efforts towards fast-tracking scientific and medical initiatives to fight the virus, as well as to reduce the critical dilemma most countries are faced with in the trade-off between implementing and easing lockdowns. The UN needs to chart appropriate strategies in advance for recovery in post-Covid-19 scenarios that would enable countries to achieve expected GDP growth levels with inclusivity, as well as build up significant economic resilience to cushion future external shocks.
In terms of its political and policy mandate, it is highly relevant to hold urgent virtual consultations of the UN Security Council to deliberate on the current crisis and assess immediate means of combating it with utmost priority. Following this, the UN Security Council may consider a Declaration on Effectively Combating Covid-19, which would highlight concrete actions to combat the crisis as well as urgent actions to enable member countries to tackle economic and social challenges. The United Nations General Assembly session in September this year may consider the following core themes: "Food Security and Prevention of Famine "and" A New Horizon for Perspective Health and Human Welfare." In this context, increased resources for health and human development and substantive reduction in non-development related expenditure could be issues of priority discourse by world leaders.
As regards economic imperatives,it is high time the UN reviewed the outcomes of its commitments for international development assistance that mainly remains unachieved. There should be a blend of need-based and demand-based approaches in the restructured terms of reference for development assistance given by multilateral and bilateral financial institutions. UN specialised agencies and multilateral development institutions within the UN umbrella should be asked to present a focused Plan of Action for "Emergency Assistance" on extremely concessional terms (preferably grants) to developing countries. While respective multilateral institutions have in place their respective country programmes, a comprehensive Programme of Recovery and Development Sustainability based on the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Harmonisation principles and Accra 2009 Aid Effectiveness mechanisms should be considered. In this context, the UN-led Emergency Assistance Consortium is proposed to assess requirements and monitor resource allocation and utilisation. The proposed Consortium should also support respective country programmes and ensure Priority Debt Relief. Side by side, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may be tasked to form a Compensatory & Debt Relief Revolving Fund to compensate for export and remittance losses. UN specialised agencies such as UNDP, IFRI and UNIDO need to be advised to gear up technical assistance to promote capacity and skills enhancements in strategic sectors. Of critical importance would be creation of the Global Forum on Food Security and Prevention of Hunger and Famine. The WHO should be advised to promote and strengthen coordination with global, regional and in-country healthcare systems.
A prolonged Covid-19 crisis could adversely impact the benefits of globalisation and weaken Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and targets, and impede progress achieved so far. If this persists, there may be unwarranted shifts in current geopolitical structures that may trigger political and social instability in different regions of the world. A renewed look at SDGs due to the impact of Covid-19 would also warrant stocktaking of critical impediments that countries are faced with concerning unemployment, safety nets and social protection, environmental and climate change related issues. Current targets, indicators and schedule timelines for SDGs need to be reviewed in light of the severe challenges emerging from the Covid-19 crisis. Further to this, the UN could consider advising global and regional NGOs/CSOs and private-sector driven corporate agencies to create a Special Post Covid-19 NGO & Private Sector Fund to support countries to meet cash needs for the unemployed and vulnerable groups.
Will the UN be able to fulfil its mandate of supporting recovery and growth in the medium to long term? How effective are current UN mechanisms to salvage the unprecedented economic and social perils countries are faced with? Will the UN that we have at the moment, with its current structure, charter and functional modes, be sufficiently capable of meeting the challenges that confront the market mechanism and liberal economic and social settings? The UN may have to undergo a strategic transformation as well as structural and operational adjustments towards a much-envisioned paradigm shift. An inability to respond appropriately might usher in proposals for restructuring the United Nations. Hopefully, the UN is fully aware of its responsibilities in meeting the unprecedented challenges it is facing today.
Dr Mohammed Parvez Imdad is an economist and governance specialist, and a former national and international civil servant.