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From climate change to coronavirus, 'frayed' global order blocks problem-solving

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 January 2021 19:50 GMT

A woman receives a dose of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine as country begins mass vaccination for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Belgrade, Serbia, January 21, 2021. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

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Addressing big global challenges may require rethinking institutions, combining expertise - and looking for more answers from the grassroots, governance experts say

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Addressing interconnected global challenges - from COVID-19 to climate change and inequality - will require rethinking international institutions, leadership and where solutions come from, governance experts said this week.

"The global order is really frayed - it's disintegrating in front of our eyes. That's a real threat to any attempt to sort things out," said Mo Ibrahim, a businessman and philanthropist who has worked to improve governance in Africa.

An increase in nationalistic leaders in powerful countries was making solving the world's problems harder, he and other experts told an online event on global challenges organised by the University of Birmingham's Institute for Global Innovation.

"The real challenge for us is political. We are unable to work together as a society," warned Ibrahim, whose foundation in 2007 launched a prize for retiring African leaders - but has at times struggled to find worthy recipients.

That is hampering efforts to tackle a range of big problems at once, from the pandemic and climate change to terrorism, surging migration and free-trade disputes, said Andrew Mitchell, a former British international development secretary.

"All require international cooperation and not narrow nationalism," the British member of parliament said.

Wednesday's inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden - "who appears to show some respect and have some belief in the international system" - is promising, Mitchell said.

Biden spent his first day in office moving to re-establish the United States in global institutions former President Donald Trump deserted, from the Paris Agreement on climate change to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But global solidarity is clearly lacking, the analysts said.


Manish Bapna, executive vice president of the Washington-based World Resources Institute, said the WHO was struggling with what its leader termed "catastrophic moral failures" in equitable delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

As rich nations snap up available doses, "it could be two years before people in Africa get the vaccine," Bapna said.

That is ultimately self-defeating for wealthier countries, Ibrahim said, because as the novel coronavirus circulates unhindered in 150 poor countries, more mutations are likely, which could render vaccines "useless in six months' time".

Like HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 can only be "defeated globally", he noted. If not, "it's going to come back and haunt you. We really have to understand that," he added.

The analysts said it was time to reshape global institutions created after World War II - from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund - to give poorer countries a stronger voice.

Efforts to protect space for protests and free speech in nations where that is shrinking were also crucial, they said.

Srilatha Batliwala, an Indian academic and women's rights activist, said tackling a growing range of serious problems simultaneously also would require bringing together unusual coalitions of experts and activists to seek joined-up solutions.

"We need to build real solidarity across movements," she said. Those pushing for environmental change, economic justice, gender and LGBTQ+ rights and more democratic governance would have to join forces, she added.

Looking for answers from grassroots groups and people facing crises on the frontlines also was critical, Batliwala said.

Many are not at the table when solutions are discussed, including indigenous leaders and poor women, she added.


WRI's Bapna pointed out that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, in the U.S. political battleground state of Pennsylvania, had endorsed Trump for president last October, the first Republican candidate it had backed since 1972.

While Trump was an embarrassment, the paper admitted, he understood that what people in the old industrial heartland city needed were good-quality jobs. Those were unlikely to be widely promised green jobs in areas like solar or wind energy, it said.

That suggests advocates of climate action, in the United States and globally, have failed to "put into practice what an inclusive, fair transition would look like" - and are not consulting those whose jobs are at risk, Bapna said.

Sandie Okoro, general counsel for the World Bank Group, said finding solutions for global problems would require a more nuanced understanding of them.

For instance, up to another 150 million people are expected to slide into extreme poverty in 2021 as economies shrink due to the pandemic - and most of those will be women, she said.

The United States alone shed 140,000 jobs in December 2020 - almost all of them held by women, Okoro told the online event.

New leaders are needed who will listen and respond with fresh ideas, while focusing on those most at risk, she said.

"If you change for the most vulnerable, it makes it better for everybody," she added.

Read more:

Fractured world struggles to tackle pandemic, climate risks: WEF

Poor nations seen missing out as rich hoard COVID-19 vaccinations

Women and climate change

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.