Unprecedented. We often hear this word in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. While this attribute rightly describes the current global situation, the real risk is that other fundamental problems are crowded out. The focus on the mega-crisis does not mean that other international problems and struggles will magically disappear. The pandemic invites globally-minded leaders and organizations to take stock of the transformations brought about by this “new normal”, while getting creative in promoting what continues to be highly relevant in terms of growth, development, and inclusiveness. As always, strategy and tactics should be combined, and Africa and the wider Global South should remain international priorities.
The temptation to forget about anything that is not Covid-19 related is real. In the end, how many problems can we address at the same time? Things get more complicated when we realize that the pandemic is here to stay, and it will define our lives for quite a while. At the decision-making and policy levels, we already see pleas to reassess priorities and get rid of everything that is not urgent. In Europe, for example, there are more and more voices asking for the European Green Deal to be abandoned (with an attempted reframing of the Recovery Plan as Green), and the resources redirected towards fighting the economic consequences of the pandemic. It makes sense to put more money into helping those in need, but, at the same time, climate change will not take a break as the health crisis ravages the world.
At the international level, we observe a tendency of downplaying cooperation and coordinated answers. Major countries are withdrawing from various fora and have threatened or put the funding on hold (see the US example in relation to UNESCO and WHO). The temptation is to bet on national or regional solutions. Unfortunately, the international organizations have become places in which the contestation prevails over cooperation. Great power competition will only exacerbate these trends, amid deglobalisation, restructuration of economic relations, and nationalism.
But some trends need to be resilient in front of these challenges, particularly in symbolic years like 2020. Five years after the SDGs have been adopted, it is normal to ask ourselves how the pandemic will impact on the 2030 Agenda. Will this crisis spur innovation and bring about much needed progress in fighting poverty, exclusion, and inequality, or should we get used to lower expectations? The first estimations should be perceived as a warning sign: according to the experts, with some 3 billion people without basic hand washing facilities at home and 4 billion people lacking any kind of social protection, the pandemic could disproportionately hurt the worse off. Moreover, it could push 40-60 million people into extreme poverty, most of them in Africa, almost all of them in the Global South. A Global North/ West security approach to Africa amid covid19 crisis fears is less preferable than a continued aid, investment and growth agenda; in the end, development, and economic recovery after corona, is safer for all.
While we lack a clear evaluation of the potential global consequences of the pandemic for human wellbeing and security, what is obvious is that we need to protect our global projects. The implementation of the SDGs is a prominent example. These goals are an essential tool for modernisation and leveling the playing field – for many African countries, they provide hope and guidance in leaving behind a history of exploitation, violence, and poverty. This is why it is fundamental to ensure that they are not a victim of short-termism or of priority realignment. A strong case should be made in favour of these projects and here intervenes the ability of international leaders and organizations (and the best advocates are the ones from the Global South) to articulate a passionate and credible call for decisive action. It really makes sense to use the current context to reframe and rebuild our stories about international cooperation and involvement, thus advocating for doing more, not less. We will be faced in the weeks and months to come, amid resource scarcity and competition, with battles of ideas, and the Global South needs to win not just the war on corona but also the war on ideas.
Securing continued support for SDGs and their implementation is part of the story (the continuity part) but a broader framework for this reframing could involve the idea of a new social contract (the innovation part). The World Economic Forum has been championing over the past several years conversations about changing our mental structures and measuring more complex things, less tangible, such as the GDP. Transition concepts exist, such as the Green Deal or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with subsets centred on freeing people from hard labour (automation), and the energy transition to sustainability. By scope and breadth of the above, we can easily grasp how surprised we were in light of the Covid19 challenge. It is therefore time to revisit the kind of ‘deal’ we, the people, need to make with our governments in the new normal. A conversation we were supposed to have mid to late 2020s in the context of 4IR implementation and AI progress is being forced on our agenda now. Due to this strategic surprise and its “jamais-vu” impact, the New Deal has to be simple, sound and soul-reaching, to win hearts and minds amid health problems and job loss in corona times.
So, while timing is tragic, as are the tens of thousands of corona deaths, this is a conversation we need to have, the talk on the New Deal or the New Social Contract can’t be postponed. Africa and more widely the Global South can lead the way in offering fresh models: a New World can come up with New Ideas and New Deals. Some countries, like Morocco, thought about a committee on the new social contract even before this crisis started. Others should follow suit. We need a serious new-models brainstorming, while some directions seem already clear. For example, the 2020 New Deal should have a national and global scope (hence, the role of the SDGs), including a health duty/responsibility to protect. By elevating the social contract above social payouts (like, in development, we want to upgrade from aid to investment) to the compulsory planning around protecting society and human lives in public policies, we stand a better chance to avoid future economy-shattering pandemics, and avoid the twin threats of collapse of governance and social peace. Africa needs social peace to develop but it’s hard to have social peace if millions of youth coming to job markets each year do not find a job. Let us all work together for national and global social peace and an after corona swift recovery.
Radu Magdin is a global analyst and think tanker, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.