The Partnership for Recovery: A Roadmap for Building Back From COVID-19
Editor’s Note: WPR has made this article, as well as a selection of others from our COVID-19 coverage that we consider to be in the public interest, freely available for an initial two-week period.
Six months in, it is tempting to think the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is past. Hard-hit cities are breathing easier and many countries are already in the advanced stages of reopening their societies and economies.
But even as a second wave looms, COVID-19’s first wave isn’t done. Globally, the contagion is accelerating as the pandemic’s epicenter shifts. The increase from 8 million to 9 million cases took only seven days, and from there to 10 million took just six days. Until a vaccine is available, no country is safe.
The direst estimates project up to 40 million deaths and 7 billion infections—virtually the entire global population—without mitigation efforts. On the economic front, 1.6 billion livelihoods and 20 years of global developmental gains are at risk. Meanwhile, the challenges that confronted humanity before the pandemic—climate change, wars and famines, social and racial injustice, human rights violations—have not gone away. The need for a global coordinated response to the pandemic is more urgent than ever.
There have been positive efforts by some European states to create an Inclusive Vaccines Alliance, and by other states, like Canada and Jamaica, to ensure that wider development financing is not harmed by the virus. But the G-7 is still absent; the G-20 is tinkering with short-lived debt-relief schemes; and the United Nations Security Council remains paralyzed by great power tensions. The World Health Organization, now a political football between Washington and Beijing, is weakened at precisely the moment it is most needed. Having abdicated its global convener role, the United States is in retreat as China plays for advantage. And though U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres forcefully used his bully pulpit early on to call for an integrated response and propose a global cease-fire, among other efforts, most governments have reacted with confusion and disarray.
Why, one might reasonably ask, is a multilateral response necessary? Because the pandemic is in fact a global governance crisis triggered by a public health challenge. The threat of the virus itself is neither unprecedented nor insurmountable; the difficulty lies in responding to the full complexity of that problem collectively and coherently at the global level. And recovery increasingly looks to be a five-year marathon, not a nine-month sprint.
Both the shortcomings and the modest multilateral successes so far suggest a workable strategy: Europe and the U.N.-led international institutions must partner to build a center of gravity that engages different constellations of actors for coordinated and results-oriented action. This partnership for recovery should build up under one tent, across four pandemic-related policy tables: public health, economic stabilization, climate change and social justice, each coordinated by a set of “recovery sherpas.”
The four sets of issues pose a design challenge, because they draw on different international legal and governance frameworks, and have different stakeholders, priorities and sensitivities. But combined together skillfully, they can form a framework that harnesses the potential for a transformational multilateral moment—a means of meeting or improving on goals already agreed at the international level. These include especially the 2015 “hat trick”: the Paris Agreement on climate change, the adoption of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda for Financing Development.
Public Health: This policy table would monitor and manage efforts to suppress the virus and oversee an end-to-end “global public good” approach to developing and distributing a vaccine. It could be headed by a prominent European country that is already engaged on vaccine development, like France or Spain, along with a country that has successfully suppressed the virus, such as Vietnam. The table would work in conjunction with the World Health Assembly and take up institutional shortcomings or policy issues currently beyond the WHO’s mandate, such as new interim global passenger travel standards, developed in coordination with the International Civil Aviation Organization, which are urgently needed to facilitate a smooth return to travel and tourism.
A multilateral approach is the only way to meet this once-in-a-generation crisis. But met correctly, this moment also offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Economic Stabilization: This table would be mandated to oversee a truly global economic recovery and maintain financial stability while protecting the Sustainable Development Goals. The G-20—which represents 90 percent of global GDP, 85 percent of global trade and two-thirds of the global population—must be a critical player in this effort, and its success at this table will be an opportunity to revitalize its role in global economic policy coordination, which has waned since the global financial crisis. The sherpas here would likely be a leading global economy like Germany or Japan, paired with Ethiopia, the lead negotiator of the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda. They would need to work closely with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and global businesses to forge stronger commitments on debt relief and livelihood protection, particularly in developing economies.
Climate Change: The pandemic’s recovery offers a unique opportunity to “build back better” and catapult forward the response to the climate crisis. As countries reopen, they will need incentives to avoid fueling their economic recoveries with dirty fossil fuels. The United Kingdom, which will host the next U.N. climate summit in Glasgow—now postponed until 2021—should partner with a green recovery leader, like South Korea, to oversee this effort in close coordination with the economic table. The blueprint will need to include mitigation and adaptation measures on clean energy, carbon neutrality and food systems—some of which is already happening at the city level—with the engagement of the full range of nonstate actors.
Social Justice: The pandemic has exacerbated racial, social and class divisions in many countries and has also sparked human rights concerns, as some countries seek to use emergency powers to control or suppress dissent. This table will need to mitigate the social effects of both the pandemic and its recovery on vulnerable communities, including refugees, migrants, minorities, women and youth. At the same time, protest movements have erupted in recent years against systems of oppression and discrimination, from Hong Kong to Beirut to Minneapolis. So this table’s work can also help convert the energy of the moment into peaceful social change. Its tasks require a more varied coalition of “bridging” states with a demonstrated commitment to advancing human rights and pluralism, like the Netherlands, Costa Rica and New Zealand. Countries that have successfully transitioned to democracy, like Chile, as well as more nascent ones, like Tunisia, also merit inclusion. Together with Guterres, these nations can muster and leverage political will and resources within their own regions while ensuring that critical social dimensions of the crisis are worked back into the three other tables.
A multilateral approach is the only way to meet this once-in-a-generation crisis. But met correctly, this moment also offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Europe is enough of a global leader on rights and values to convene and build the initial coalition of participating states—provided it can overcome its internal fissures. Its success will then depend on its ability to get non-European nations around each of the four tables, to keep the tables talking to each other, and to help resolve problems.
The United States and China have so far sought mainly to deflect blame and criticize each other over their respective handling of the pandemic. Both are attached to their status as great powers but neither has truly engaged in any multilateral response efforts. By creating a framework for multilateral action, the “one tent, four tables” concept will increase the practical and reputational costs for all actors, but especially great powers, of remaining disengaged. By design, entrance must be easy and exit harder—an approach utilized by the Paris climate accord.
Within the tent, members of the partnership for recovery will have to remain focused on a pragmatic, collective path forward based on a problem-solving approach, and resist being used by either superpower. Across the board, proposals and decisions will have to be crafted to invite engagement while deepening the reputational and practical risks of dithering outside the tent.
For example, the social justice table might go to work on giving Security Council members, including China and the U.S., a 30-day “use it or lose it” last chance to pass a resolution on a global cease-fire. If they don’t, the General Assembly should make clear it will pass a cease-fire resolution of its own under its 1950 Uniting for Peace resolution, which created a mechanism—used a dozen times over the past 70 years—for the assembly to make collective recommendations to its members in instances where the Security Council has failed “to exercise its primary responsibility for international peace and security.”
Ignoring the multilateral lens in responding to the coronavirus pandemic is a profound mistake. As the world surpasses 10 million confirmed cases, as the virus continues to gather speed, as the shadows of lockdowns lengthen, this once-in-a-generation moment calls for a global response strong enough and flexible enough to go the distance.
Joshua Lincoln is a non-resident senior fellow at the Fletcher School’s Center on International Law and Governance, and a member of the board of advisors of the Global Governance Forum. He is the former secretary-general of the Baha’i International Community and a former senior staff member of the United Nations. These are his personal opinions. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshualinco1n.