Tag Archives: USA

A new UN for a new (and better) global order (Part Two): seven solutions for seven challenges

This is a response to my post in July 2021, which identified seven main challenges and problems facing the UN system. While it is easy to criticise, it is much more difficult to recommend and deliver change.  Hence, this short piece offers a set of suggestions for fundamental reform across the UN system in response to the challenges identified in my earlier post. These are grounded in a belief that the UN needs to be smaller, leaner and fitter for purpose in serving the needs of national governments across the world.  In so doing it should therefore primarily serve the interests of citizens rather than of itself and the global corporations that have subverted its high ideals. 

Context

The seven main inter-related problems and challenges identified in my previous post were:

  • The UN largely serves the neo-liberal political interests of the USA and its allies. 
  • The UN does not appoint the most capable and appropriate people to senior leadership positions.
  • There is disagreement about the size that the UN should be; should its agencies aspire to be implementers of development interventions themselves, or should they instead mainly provide guidance and good practices for governments to implement?
  • The SDGs have already failed, but the UN persists in their propagation primarily in its own interests, so that UN agencies can claim they are doing something worthwhile
  • The UN system is beset by duplication of effort, overlap, and reinvention of the wheel between agencies, between the Secretariat and the agencies, and even in larger agencies between the various silos within them
  • The UN’s ambitions go well beyond the budget available to fund them
  • The SDG agenda, the lack of UN funding, and the opportunistic behaviour of many global corporations mean that the private sector has been able to subvert the UN’s global governance structures in its own interest

Responses to each of these are addressed in turn, outlining potential ways in which these problems might be overcome.  As with my previous post, it draws largely on my experience in working with UN agencies over the last two decades primarily on aspects associated with the use of digital technologies in international development, and it also draws comparisons with my experiences from working with a diversity of organisations within The Commonwealth.

The UN has indeed begun to recognise the importance of some of these issues, and the Secretary General’s (SG’s) recent Our Common Agenda report in 2021[i] does emphasise two important requirements with which I largely concur:

  • The need to renew the social contract between governments and their people (see Section II);[ii] and
  • The introduction of new measures to complement GDP to assist people in understanding the impacts of business activities and the true costs of economic growth.[iii]

However, much of the SG’s report is wishful thinking, highly problematic, and not grounded sufficiently in the harsh reality of the interests underlying global geopolitics and economic systems.  It also clearly represents the interests of those within the UN system, and especially in the central Secretariat, as expressed succinctly in its assertion that “now is the time for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations” [my emphasis].[iv]  The fundamental challenge is that the UN system and its leadership are part of the problem and not the solution.


Seven proposals


1. Increasing diversity and changing the power relationships within the UN

The UN and its agencies have generally sought to be broadly representative of the cultural diversity of the world’s peoples.  They have also recently made important strides to increase gender diversity amongst staff.  Nevertheless, huge efforts still need to be made to achieve greater diversity both among the staff and in the interests that the UN promotes.  Remarkably few staff within the UN system, for example, are drawn from those with recognised disabilities, and the interests of many economically poorer or smaller countries, as well as minority ethnic groups remain under-represented.  Rather than serving the rich and the powerful (as well as itself), the UN truly needs to serve all of the world’s peoples, including the stateless.

The fundamental issue here, though, is the need to change the UN’s ideological balance away from the primacy that it gives to neo-liberal democracy (in large part derived from the heavy influence of the USA and its allies), towards a recognition that there are many competing political-economic ideologies currently being promoted globally. One of the UN’s roles is to help weaker countries negotiate these ideological power struggles, and if it is allied too closely with any one of them the UN is doomed either to increasing irrelevance or failure.  It must above all serve its role wisely in delivering the first paragraph of Article 1 of its founding charter: “To maintain international peace and security”.[v]  This is becoming an ever more pressing issue at a time when the fortunes of the USA and its previously dominant ideology are waning and those of China are waxing.[vi]  It is thus crucial for the UN to have the means whereby it can retain a level of oversight, while also serving as a neutral forum where conflict can be resolved through negotiation and mediation.

Three practical recommendations could help resolve this issue:

  • First the UN Security Council[vii] needs to be fundamentally restructured.  Its permanent membership seems anachronistic, and at the very least France and the UK should no longer be included, perhaps to be replaced by a rotating representation from countries within the European Union.[viii]  There are many options: the idea of permanent membership itself should be revisited; membership could be linked to population size, whilst also providing some guarantees for small states; the more than 50 countries that have never been members could be prioritised; and better means should be found to enforce its resolutions.
  • Second, new locations should be identified for the headquarters of UN agencies and the central Secretariat.  It would be a massive and expensive undertaking to move the entire Secretariat from New York to an alternative location.  However, this is ultimately likely to be necessary for the long-term viability of the UN system, not only for symbolic reasons, but also because of the bias that a US location causes in terms of the number of US citizens employed and also the subtle ideological influences that it creates in the minds of those working there from other countries.  More realistically, there should at the very least be a substantial reduction in the overall UN presence in New York.  The use of new generations of digital technologies could greatly facilitate this.  As experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have shown, it is no longer necessary to hold as many face-to-face meetings within the UN system as has heretofore been the case.  A very strong argument can be made for the UN headquarters to be located in a clearly neutral country,[ix] as is already the case with those UN agencies located in Geneva.   However, at the very least it would make sense for it to be situated somewhere other than in one of the major, and potentially conflicting, states such as China, the USA, Russia and India.
  • Third, considerably more attention and resourcing need to be given to those UN agencies concerned with reducing conflict and maintaining peace, notably the Department of Peace Operations (DPO),[x] but also those with experience of mediation, conflict reduction and peace building such as UNODA (Office for Disarmament Affairs), OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNODC (Office on Drugs and Crime), and possibly even UNOOSA (Office for Outer Space Affairs) as territorial and strategic interests of nations and corporations now spread beyond planet earth.

2. Improving the quality and diversity of the UN’s leadership and senior management

There are undoubtedly some capable and well qualified people in senior leadership positions[xi] within the UN system, but they are the exception.  Far too many do not have the qualifications or experience to be able to deliver their roles effectively. There therefore needs to be a fundamental restructuring of the processes used to elect or appoint them.[xii]

At least two tensions make it difficult to resolve this issue: the perceived need to balance appropriate national representation with quality and expertise of leadership; and the varying challenges associated with election and/or appointment to senior roles.  However, despite such challenges it is completely unacceptable that a UN Under-Secretary General on appointment to a new post within the UN should as recently as 2021 tweet that he was “a relatively newcomer to the field”.[xiii]

One way to resolve these issues would be for a small review and appointments office to be created to provide guidance to all entities within the UN system relating to senior leadership positions.  Two of its key roles could be:

  • to review all short-listed or nominated applicants against the criteria required for the specific post, ensuring that they have the experience and expertise to fulfil the role; and
  • to serve as a search facility that could identify additional people who might be appropriate for upcoming appointments.

Where elections are the means of appointment to such positions, countries could nominate as at present, but all such nominations would be subject to approval by this review office.  For both appointments and elections, the unit could also encourage specific countries to nominate one of their nationals highlighted in any of its searches.  Furthermore, this would provide a mechanism whereby the unit could specifically seek to find people who would be suitable to fill appointments from under-represented communities and countries, thereby helping to respond to commitments to diversity.[xiv]

Additionally, it is very important that all UN officials once appointed should undergo regular and appropriate training so that they can improve their relevant expertise.  Given the importance of mediation and consensus building, it is critically important that these should also feature prominently in all staff UN training.  It would not be too much to suggest that all staff in any UN entity should be required to spend 5% of their time in various forms of training.  Far too many UN officials are overly confident of their own abilities, and do not pay enough attention to the critical importance of staff training, either for themselves or for those who report to them.  Just because someone has been a government Minister, for example, does not mean that they have any understanding of international diplomacy or subject matter expertise.  It is essential that the UN as a whole including all of its agencies should become learning organisations, so that they are better fit for purpose. This will be a major undertaking and require a fundamental shift of thinking within many such agencies.

The UN System Staff College (UNSSC) might be a possible home for this unit, although the highly critical 2020 report by the Joint Inspection Unit[xv] does not inspire confidence that it has the capacity to do so.  It would, though, be wise for the unit to be situated outside the central UN Secretariat so that it can be seen to have some independence from the highly politicised and some would say over-bloated headquarters operations.  If, though, it was felt that it had to be in the Secretariat headquarters, it might be created as a division within the Office of Internal Oversight Services.


3. Towards a smaller, more focused UN

The UN has grown haphazardly and surreptitiously largely in its own interests so that it is now far too big and ambitious, but has neither the funding nor the capacity to deliver its agendas effectively.  A central issue that must therefore be addressed concerns how big the UN and its agencies should be.  I suggest that it is already far too big, in part as a result of the neo-liberal hegemony it has embraced. Its agencies seek to do too much by themselves. Instead its basic role should be as the servant of all member governments, empowering them to serve the best interests of their citizens.  It should not be the servant of private sector corporations, as it increasingly seems to be becoming.

One of the main ways in which this could be achieved would simply be through eliminating most of the work that UN agencies do in trying to implement their own development initiatives, and replace this with a clearer focus on delivering appropriate training and support for governments so that they can deliver relevant development programmes within their our countries.  Most UN agencies are neither well designed or appropriately staffed actually to implement effective on-the-ground development interventions, yet huge sums of money are wasted on attempts to implement their own development projects, and this situation has got far worse through the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in support of Agenda 2030 (see Section 4 below).  Many other civil society organisations, bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, and private sector enterprises are already implementing high quality development programmes.  There is absolutely no need for the UN to try to do so as well.  Indeed, external reviews highlight the poor quality of the development work done by many (although certainly not all) UN agencies.  The UK Department for International Development’s (DFID)[xvi] Multilateral Aid review in 2016 thus noted that the organisational strengths of UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNOCHA, the UN Peacebuilding Fund, UN Women, and the WHO were all weak or only adequate, and this excludes the agencies that DFID was not already funding because it did not even consider it worth so doing.[xvii]

This is not to say that the UN should cease trying to improve the important humanitarian and peacebuilding initiatives in which it is already engaged.  As noted above (Section 1) the UN has a crucial role to play in global peacebuilding, and it could also do much more effectively to help co-ordinate global responses to physical disasters and humanitarian crises, providing relief assistance rapidly and efficiently where needed.  However, its current implementation processes need to be considerably improved, and this requires both appropriate financial resourcing and increased global commitment to deliver them. Some will, no doubt, claim that such humanitarian interventions are often caused by wider failures in “development” and therefore that the UN must also be involved in these.  However, the track record of many such interventions by UN agencies is poor and the existence of so many other agencies delivering better interventions suggests that the UN should concentrate on doing what it does best, rather than proliferating failure.

There are many other ways in which the UN could reduce its size and expenditure, such as employing fewer external consultants, producing fewer reports that have little real impact, limiting the number of wasteful meetings and events that it holds, and reducing the number of staff that it employs.  The bottom line, though, is that we need to move away from a large poorly co-ordinated self-important system that is far too big, to a much smaller, leaner organisation that truly delivers effectively on the needs of governments and their citizens.


4. Abandoning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030, and planning for a new future for the UN

Many of the above comments relate directly to the development agenda that the UN has embarked on, first with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and since 2015 with the SDGs.  These still have their supporters, often mainly on the grounds that they are the best things we currently have to help co-ordinate global development agendas, and any criticism thereof is potentially damaging.  However, the strength of criticism of the SDGs has grown considerably in recent years, reinforcing the views of those of us who were critical of them from the beginning, and were well captured by William Easterly in 2015 when he described SDGs as standing for “Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled”.[xviii]

Now is the time to recognise that the SDGs really are a failed agenda, and that, as noted in Section 3 above, the UN should replace most of its attempted practice in international development with clear, focused and high-quality support and training for governments in delivering their own interventions to improve the lives of their citizens.  It will take considerable time to make this shift, but 2030 is only eight years away.  We all need to be brave in acknowledging that the SDGs have failed, and start working urgently instead to create a better system that can serve the global community more fairly from 2030 onwards.

Three things are key for the success of such a new agenda: the abandonment of attempts to make neo-liberal democracy the global religion that its advocates would like to see; the replacement of the economic growth agenda with a more balanced view that places the reduction of inequalities at its heart;[xix] and a shift away from the dogma of the primacy of universal human rights to a recognition that these need to be balanced by individual and governmental responsibilities.[xx]  None of these will be easy to achieve, but there are indeed at last some signs that the second of them is gaining traction.  As noted in the introduction to this post, Our Common Agenda has at last signalled recognition at the highest level within the UN that there is an urgent need to redress the focus on untrammelled economic growth as a solution to poverty with one that recognises that economic growth has a propensity to cause further inequalities, and that seeks to redress this by placing primacy on redistribution and equity.  This is nowhere more true than in the vast wealth accrued by the digital barons from their exploitation of the world’s poor and marginalised.

Put simply, it is time to abandon the economic growth agenda of the SDGs, and replace it with a more caring and human approach that gives primacy to redistribution, equity, and a reduction in inequalities.


5. Removing duplication, overlap and reinventing the wheel

It is widely recognised that there is enormous waste within the UN system, driven in large part by competition and a lack of co-ordination between agencies.  This is further enhanced by the aspiration of senior managers to gain ever higher positions within the UN by championing their own highly visible projects, a lack of understanding about what other agencies are actually doing, and inward looking and self-serving career structures within many such agencies.

An increasingly worrying tendency in recent years, at least in the digital tech sector, has also been the growing power of the UN Secretariat and its staff in wanting to lead by creating new initiatives that overlap with other existing global initiatives, and frequently reinvent the wheel.[xxi]  This is nowhere more true than in the bizarre history of the formation of the UN SG’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation,[xxii] and the subsequent development of his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation in 2020.[xxiii] 

Moving towards a smaller, more focused UN will require the creation of much tighter and precise mandates for its central Secretariat and each of its agencies.  This in turn will require the strengthening of existing structures designed to enable effective cooperation and collaboration, not least since many of the world’s most pressing challenges require multi-sector and holistic approaches to their resolution.  However, this should most certainly not be done by the UN SG setting up new initiatives within the Secretariat that frequently serve the personal interests of the senior leadership within it.  One such mechanism that seems to be undervalued and insufficiently utilised is the UN System Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination (CEB) which “provides broad guidance, co-ordination and strategic direction for the UN system in the areas under the responsibility of Executive Heads. Focus is placed on inter-agency priorities and initiatives while ensuring that the independent mandates of organizations are maintained”.[xxiv]  Much of its practical work is undertaken through the High-Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP),[xxv] and based on my own experience of working with this committee I have no doubt that its mechanisms can indeed lead to the production of valuable recommendations and actions.[xxvi] The challenge is that such initiatives can easily be overtaken by events, and the creation of new priorities, either by the UN SG (representing the collective interests of the Secretariat) or by individual agencies whose leaders want to drive forward their own agendas.

Another undoubted challenge is that decision making in most UN agencies is based on the collective views of their members, and ultimately these represent the interests of individual Ministers (or equivalent) in all the member countries of the world.  Hence, the WHO is meant to represent the collectivity of Health Ministries, UNESCO the Education Ministries, and the ITU the Telecommunication and/or Digital Technology Ministries.  Often, the lack of co-ordination at the UN level mirrors the lack of policy integration at the national level.  This implies that if real progress is to be made there need to be ambitious approaches that seek to improve internal co-ordination within both national and global systems of government and governance.  Unfortunately, the ambitions and aspirations of individual Ministers as much as the senior leadership of specific UN agencies therefore conspire effectively to constrain the potential for effective co-ordination systems to be put in place.

There would also be much to be gained from more effective collaboration between the UN and existing regional organisations which often have a much better understanding of regional issues than do UN agencies.  Rather than competing with them or duplicating what they are already doing, it would make far more sense to pool resources and work together to achieve desirable outcomes for specific countries and groups of people.                      

In summary, the senior leadership of the UN system as a whole needs to give much greater attention to delivering effective co-ordination in policy and practice, but this should be done through existing mechanisms rather than by increasing the power of the UN Secretary General and his close colleagues.[xxvii] 


6. Rebalancing the budget for a leaner UN

The problem of systemic funding shortages for much of the work of the UN Secretariat and its many agencies and offices is closely related to the scale of its activities.  Not least, many poorer countries cannot provide sufficient resources for delivering its remit, especially when it comes to implementing development interventions.  The funding arrangements for the UN Secretariat and its many funds, programmes and specialist agencies are separate, but most consist of a combinations of assessed and voluntary combinations, that enable funding countries to choose how much they support different agencies.  The core budget for the UN Secretariat in 2020 was only US$ 3.1 billion,[xxviii] excluding additional donations and peacekeeping activities for which the budget is currently around twice as much.[xxix]  One third of the 2019 core budget was provided by the USA (22%) and China (12%), with Japan providing 8.5%, Germany 6%, and the UK 5.4%.[xxx]  The top 25 countries contribute about 88% of the total core budget. The percentage national contributions to specific UN agencies and programmes vary considerably with respect to the funding by different countries, but they do emphasise once again the striking overall power wielded by the USA.   As noted above (Section 1), this is not healthy for the UN, and it is absolutely essential for many other countries to step up to the mark and fund the UN appropriately.  However, the observation that they do not provide more funding could imply that they do not see sufficient value in supporting the UN system.  If that is really true then fundamental restructuring of the UN and its agencies is long overdue.  Having led a small intergovernmental agency, I know only too well the crucial importance of ensuring that such entities deliver on the wishes of all of their members so that funding can be guaranteed to maintain their activities.  If members see no value in an agency then it should be shut down.

Two further important observations can be made about the UN’s funding situation.  The first is that a smaller UN that is able to reduce the amount of duplication and overlap in its activities, as advocated above, would require less funding, and would therefore be able to live within its means more effectively.  If countries are not willing to support the work of specific agencies or activities these should be closed.  However, second, the most worrying trend with respect to funding is the way in which many UN agencies have instead sought to establish closer relationships with the private sector as funders of the ambitions of their leadership for expansion of their programmes and raising their own individual profiles through eye-catching initiatives.  This is extremely worrying because it changes the role of UN agencies that have embarked on this approach away from being inter-governmental agencies supporting the needs of governments and their citizens, to being vehicles through which private sector corporations seek to shape global policy and implement activities across the world in their own interests of increasing market share, corporate profits and the benefit accruing to their owners and shareholders.  As UNESCO states on its short private sector partnership page, “Over these last two decades, the Private sector has become an increasingly valuable partner for UNESCO – contributing its core business expertise, creativity, innovative technological solutions, social media outreach, financial and in-kind contributions to achieve shared objectives in the area of Education, Culture, the Sciences and Communication and Information”.[xxxi]  There is, though, little that is innocent or altruistic about the corporate sector’s involvement in such partnerships.  The UN yet again becomes diminished to being merely a vehicle that serves the interests of neo-liberalism and the free market – or to call it by a less popular name, global capitalism.


7. The restructuring of global governance and the establishment of multi-sector partnerships on a rigorous basis

The increasing embeddedness of the private sector in UN activities (Section 6) is seriously worrying since it detracts from the core role of its agencies as inter-governmental organisations.  In a richly prescient argument, Jens Martens summarised the potential dangers of such partnerships some 15 years ago,[xxxii] and most of his concerns have since come to pass.  Anyone in the UN who has sought to implement such partnerships since then, and has failed to read his work, as well as some of the other detailed recommendations concerning the dos and don’ts of partnership building by other authors is directly culpable for their failure.[xxxiii]

The private sector does indeed have much to contribute to effective development interventions, bringing technical knowledge, appropriate management skills, and additional specific resources, but far too often UN agencies seek to engage with the private sector primarily for the additional funding that may be provided.  Most people in UN agencies have little real idea about how to forge effective partnerships with the private sector that are built on a rigorous assessment of needs and a transparent mutual benefits framework.  Far too many agencies have therefore become subverted by global corporations, and are often viewed with suspicion by those in other UN agencies who have deliberately chosen to have less direct collaboration with companies.

Many UN agencies resort to the UN’s Global Compact established in 2000 as a means through which to engage with the private sector.  The Compact itself is based on CEOs’ commitments to ten principles relating to Human Rights, Labour, Environment, and Anti-Corruption; with 15,268 companies having signed up, it now claims to be the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.  However, it actually has rather little to say in detail about about partnership, or with the mechanisms through which effective mutually beneficial partnerships can indeed be established between companies, governments and UN agencies, in the interests of the many rather than the few.[xxxiv]  Sadly, the consequent loosely defined “partnerships” that have been constructed, often subvert the UN’s governance structures and have increasingly led it to serve the interests of the rich and powerful against the poorest and most marginalised.

Unlike some of the other recommendations above, it is relatively easy to implement effective multi-sector partnerships, with much guidance having been written on the subject.[xxxv]  Key success factors for development-oriented partnerships that serve the interests of the many rather than the few include

  • having a clear partnership framework in place from the beginning,
  • ensuring that civil society is also engaged (and thus also avoiding the term Public-Private Partnerships),
  • recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all (partnerships work best when they are attuned to local context),
  • establishing an appropriately skilled partnership management office,
  • building in scale and sustainability at the very beginning (not as an afterthought),
  • ensuring the continuity of participation among key individuals,
  • creating a clear and coherent communication strategy, and
  • ensuring that they are based on mutual trust, transparency, honesty and respect.

More generally, such partnerships should become less important for UN agencies if they focus more on delivering effective training for governments to be able to implement their own development interventions, rather than the UN agencies trying to deliver such interventions themselves.  At present, though, I would not recommend that governments turn to most UN agencies for advice on how to craft appropriate partnerships.


In conclusion

In summary, many of the current problems facing the UN (both the Secretariat and its specialist agencies) could be resolved by:

  • Focusing on doing a few things well, rather than taking on too many activities and failing with most of them (recognising that this will lead to a smaller, but more effective UN);
  • Rejecting neo-liberalism, and instead seeking to serve as a mediator and consensus builder between the many different existing global views around political economy and development;
  • Improving the quality of its leadership (possibly through a specialised unit with such responsibilities), and requiring significant amounts of good quality and relevant training for all of its staff;
  • Accepting that the SDGs were a mistake, and starting to plan now for a new framework for the UN in 2030;
  • Focusing primarily on serving the needs of governments through training and advice, rather than by the UN implementing its own development interventions;
  • Limiting its partnerships with private sector companies, but where these are essential ensuring that they are based on sound partnership mechanisms;
  • Developing effective co-ordination mechanisms for limiting the increasing amount of replication and duplication of effort within the UN system (which could be facilitated through enhancing the roles of the CEB and HLCP); and
  • Ensuring that more countries commit to funding the UN appropriately, so that no country ever provides more than 10% of its budget.

Implementing such changes will not be easy, but that is no excuse for not trying to undertake them.  If progress on these agendas is not made soon, the UN and its agencies will become even less significant than they are at present, and it will forever fail to deliver the ambitious intentions laid out in the four paragraphs of Article 1 of its Charter.

Two final issues require some comment: the balance between the UN Secretariat and the UN’s specialised agencies; and the involvement of governments that are unwilling to engage peacefully and constructively.  On the first of these, my close engagement in various Commonwealth organisations over the last two decades has made me very aware of a tendency for the “centre” to try to take control over as many areas as possible, even when it does not have the competence to do so and there are already existing specialised agencies capable of so doing.   This clearly also applies within the UN, and particularly in the field of digital tech.  Competition between entities within the UN system is both wasteful and damaging (to organisations and individuals), and must be reduced.  There is little within Our Common Agenda that gives rise to the hope that the present leadership of the UN is capable of achieving this.  Clarity of mandates and reducing mission creep are essential for the organisation as a whole to be effective.

Second, though, I am conscious that my arguments rely on a positive view about the role of governments in serving the real needs of their citizens.  In part this is based on my experience that even within governments (in the broadest sense, including civil servants as well as politicians) that some might describe (generously) as unsavoury, I have almost always been able to find people that I can like and trust.  It is these people that we need to foster and support.  The private sector, with its fundamental remit of generating profit, will never be able to serve the interests of the poorest and the most marginalised.  Only governments (at a structural level) and civil society organisations (generally at an individual level) have this theoretically within their remit. To achieve fairer, less unequal societies, we must therefore work primarily with governments, to help them deliver a better and safer world for all of their citizens. If princes (or governments) do not serve the interests of their citizens, I follow John Locke in maintaining that they have a right and a duty to replace them.[xxxvi]


[i] UN (2021) Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary General, New York: UN, https://www.un.org/en/content/common-agenda-report/.

[ii] But even this is hugely problematic, grounded as it is in traditional UN understandings of human rights, and paying insufficient attention to the responsibilities that are necessary for them to be assured.

[iii] Although highlighted as the fourth main point in the summary of Our Common Agenda, it is only treated relatively briefly in paras 38 and 39 of the report.

[iv] UN (2021) Our Common Agenda – Report of the Secretary General, New York: UN, p.4.

[v] https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-1.

[vi] See for example my https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/23/digital-political-economy-in-a-post-covid-19-world-implications-for-the-most-marginalised/.

[vii] https://www.un.org/securitycouncil

[viii] This could in effect be rotational among countries within the European Union, since UN membership is based on nation states rather than regional blocs.

[ix] Perhaps even somewhere like Costa Rica, which has not had any armed forces since 1949.

[x] Although this was only created in 2019 following restructuring of the UN’s peace and security operations.

[xi] For the present purposes taken to be D1, D2, ASG, USG, DSG and SG.

[xii] For an interesting perspective, see Feltman, J. (2020) Restoring (some) impartiality to UN senior appointments, Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/restoring-some-impartiality-to-un-senior-appointments/.

[xiii] Tweet by on 23 January 2021; https://twitter.com/HochschildF/status/1352789899938824192.

[xiv] I am not inclined to quota systems, which are very difficult to administer and often lead to a diminution in quality of appointments if there are insufficient people with the necessary skills.  However, I appreciate that there are those who see such quotas as being the only way to achive scuh goals.

[xv] Dumitriu, P. (2020) Policies and platforms in support of learning: towards more coherence, co-ordination and convergence, Report of the Joint Inspection Unit, Geneva: United Nations.

[xvi] Now the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/foreign-commonwealth-development-office.

[xvii] DFID (2016) Raising the Standard: the Multilateral Development Review 2016 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/573884/Multilateral-Development-Review-Dec2016.pdf

[xviii] Easterly, W. (2015) The SDGs should stand for Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/28/the-sdgs-are-utopian-and-worthless-mdgs-development-rise-of-the-rest/.  For my own condemnation of the SDGs see Unwin, T. (2015) ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sustainable-development-goals/, and Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/.

[xix] Much of my work addresses this issue, but see in particular Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[xx] For more detailed argumentation, see Unwin, T. (2104) Prolegomena on human rights and responsibilities, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/prolegomena-on-human-rights-and-responsibilities/.  See also Onora O’Neill’s wonderful (2016) book Justice across boundaries, Cambridge: CUP.

[xxi] I regret that I have found it difficult to fathom out quite what the reason for this is, and whether it reflects a strong UN Secretary General (in which case he is very often wrong) or a weak one (also not exactly good) who is being manipulated by career-minded staff in the Secretariat.  Perhaps he simply has too much on his plate, and is not prioritising the right things.

[xxii] This history, some of which I know about in considerable detail, remains to be told publicly by those who really know the full murky background.

[xxiii] https://www.un.org/en/content/digital-cooperation-roadmap/.

[xxiv] https://unsceb.org/structure.

[xxv] https://unsceb.org/high-level-committee-programmes-hlcp.

[xxvi] https://unsceb.org/sites/default/files/2021-09/Towards%20a%20United%20Nations%20system-wide%20strategic%20approach%20for%20achieving%20inclusive%2C%20equitable%20and%20innovative%20education%20and%20learning%20for%20all.pdf.

[xxvii] Innovative uses of technology could effectively support the necessary decentralised co-ordination, although as yet most such consultative and collaborative systems have tended in practice to increase rather than reduce the ultimate control of those at the centre (or top) at whatever scale is being considered.

[xxviii] https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/12/1054431.

[xxix] The peacekeeping budget for 2021-2022 was US$ 6.38 billion https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/how-we-are-funded.

[xxx] https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/73/271.

[xxxi] https://en.unesco.org/partnerships/private-sector.

[xxxii] Martens, J. (2007) Multistakeholder partnerships: Future models of multilateralism? Berlin, Germany: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung; see also more recently Adams,B. and Martens, J. (2016) Partnerships and the 2030 Agenda: Time to reconsider their role in implementation, New York: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

[xxxiii] See, for example, Martens continued work as Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum

[xxxiv] Much can be learnt about these from the extensive and long-established work of the World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/.

[xxxv] See, for example, some of my own work on effective multi-sector partnership building, including Unwin, T. (2005) Partnerships in Development Practice: Evidence from Multi-Stakeholder ICT4D Partnership Practice in Africa, Paris: UNESCO for the World Summit on the Information Society, Unwin, T. and Wong, A. (2012) Global Education Initiative: Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003-2011, Geneva: World Economic Forum, and Unwin, T. (2015) MultiStakeholder Partnerships in Information and Communication for Development Interventions, in International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society, Chichester: Wiley, 634-44.

[xxxvi] Locke, J. (ed. by Laslett, P. (1988) Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under China, Development, Education, ICT4D, partnerships, Politics, UK, United Nations

A differentiated, responsibilities-based approach to living with the Covid-19 pandemic

Rosa Graham Thomas - in UK lockdown

Rosa Graham Thomas – in UK lockdown

The United Kingdom has among the worst COVID-19 infection and death rates in the world (see Financial Times, 28th May 2020).  This is in part because of very serious errors of judgement made by the UK Government (see my list of questions to which they must answer, 27th April 2020), but it is also a result of the behaviour of substantial numbers of UK citizens during “lockdown” who, for whatever, chose not to self-isolate  (including the Prime Minister’s Senior Advisor, Dominic Cummings).  The UK government at the end of May also made another serious error of judgement, relaxing the restrictions, even for those who had previously been told to shield themselves, when  daily numbers of new infections and deaths were very much higher than they were when other countries had begun to “open up” (BBC, 31st May 2020).  This is despite the advice of many senior scientists who said that it was too early to relax the restrictions (BBC, 30th May 2020).  Estimates by the Office for National Statistics (28th May 2020) suggested that there were then at least 8000 new cases a day in England, excluding those in care homes or hospitals.  The daily average number of deaths from COVID-19 in the UK to the week ending 31st May was 242 (gov.uk, 31st May 2020).

Countries cannot stay locked down for ever, though, and it is essential for people to go back to work; indeed, it may well be that a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 will not be found in the short term, and societies may have to learn to live with this coronavirus for the foreseeable future.  Difficult decisions will therefore need to be made about how to manage daily life and reduce the number of deaths caused by SARS-Cov-2.  These decisions will need to vary depending on the specific contexts of each country, including its demographics (see my post of 7th May 2020) and environmental factors (see my post of 3rd May 2020).  In the UK, the government has used fairly crude measures, trying to ensure that large numbers of people stayed at home (even though most of them would not be seriously ill if they caught COVID-19), rather than varying the strategy according to risk.  Most actions and discussions have also adopted a human rights based approach to considering how decisions should be made (see for example Morley et al.’s paper on the ethics of tracing apps, or Lord Sumpton’s discussion of why lockdown is despotic).  Instead, I suggest here that we need to adopt highly differentiated strategies, based on our responsibilities (or obligations, as Onora O’Neill suggests in her 2016 book Justice Across Boundaries).

Differentiated risks of COVID-19

There is increasingly sophisticated analysis in various parts of the world to suggest that different groups of people have substantially different risk factors.  While anyone can die from COVID-19, the following generalisations about who is most likely to die seem to have widespread support:

  • Older people are more at risk of having serious complications or dying from COVID-19.  Public Health England (PHE) in their early June 2020 report on disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, showed that “Among people with a positive test, when compared with those under 40, those who were 80 or older were seventy times more likely to die”.   Dowd et al. (2020) likewise show that “Currently, COVID-19 mortality risk is highly concentrated at older ages, particularly those aged 80+”.  Case Fatality Rates (CFRs) generally increase significantly with age, especially for those over 60; in Italy 96.9% of deaths by the end of March were for those over 60 (Istituto Superiore di Sanità, 2020).  In South Africa 80% of the COVID-19 deaths reported by 2nd May were for people over 50, with a quarter of deaths being in the 60-69 age group.  There is, though, still uncertainty as to whether there is something specific about age itself, or whether these figures are because older people are more likely to have other comorbidities.  It is also interesting to note that the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) Infection Survey pilot suggested that the highest percentage of those testing positive in the UK between 26th April and 24th May were in the 20-49 year age group.
  • Men are more vulnerable than women.  This may well be because women have two X chromosomes (The Guardian, 7th June 2020), although there remains some dispute about the influence of gender on infection and mortality.  The PHE report cited above shows that in England “Working age males diagnosed with COVID-19 were twice as likely to die as females”.  Most surveys seem to suggest that men are more at risk than women, but the ONS survey of those testing positive interestingly indicated that “there is no evidence of differences in the proportions of men or women testing positive for COVID-19”.
  • People with comorbidities are much more likely to be seriously ill or die from COVID-19 than are those who are otherwise healthy.  Data for March reported by the US CDC indicates that almost 90% of all patients hospitalised that month had one or more underlying conditions, with 49.7% having hypertension, 48.3% being obese, 34.6% having chronic lung disease,  28.3% having Type 2 diabetes, and 27.8% having cardiovascular disease.  These five health problems are associated with higher death rates in most places where the data have been studied, although precise percentages vary quite considerably between populations (for a review of underlying metabolic health see Lancet, 2020; for a useful South African perspective, see Cullinan, 2020).  The UK authorities have defined clinically vulnerable people as follows:
    • “aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions)
    • under 70 with an underlying health condition listed below (that is, anyone instructed to get a flu jab as an adult each year on medical grounds):
      • chronic (long-term) mild to moderate respiratory diseases, such asasthma,chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema orbronchitis○chronic heart disease, such asheart failure
      • chronic kidney disease
      • chronic liver disease, such ashepatitis○chronic neurological conditions, such asParkinson’s disease,motor neurone disease,multiple sclerosis (MS), or cerebral palsy
      • diabetes
      • a weakened immune system as the result of conditions such as HIV and AIDS, or medicines such as steroid tablets
      • being seriously overweight (a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or above)
      • pregnant women
    • As above, there is a further category of people with serious underlying health conditions who are clinically extremely vulnerable, meaning they are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus”
  • Ethnicity does appear to have an effect on the seriousness of health impacts of COVID-19, even taking other factors into consideration, but the precise reasons for this are not yet known.  In the UK, more people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have been seriously ill or died from COVID-19 than have people of white ethnicity, but this could be partly explained by deprivation, cultural factors (such as religious and family interactions), and comorbidities (such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes).  England’s PHE report concludes that “An analysis of survival among confirmed COVID-19 cases and using more detailed ethnic groups, shows that after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death than people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British”.  More recently, the ISARIC CCP-UK study has shown convincingly that: (i) “Ethnic Minorities in hospital with COVID-19 were more likely to be admitted to critical care and receive IMV than Whites”, and (ii) “South Asians are at greater risk of dying, due at least in part to a higher prevalence of pre-existing diabetes” (see Harrison and Docherty, 17th June 2020).  Insufficient detailed studies have yet been undertaken in other parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, to see whether ethnicity is indeed also a risk factor there.
  • The risk of being infected is higher indoors than out of doors.  This is mainly because there is generally more air movement to disperse SARS-Cov-2 outdoors (although air conditioning systems indoors do spread it in the direction blown by a fan), and people are usually in closer juxtaposition for longer indoors than outside.  It is also easier to maintain sufficient distance between people outdoors than indoors (see inews, 11th May 2020).  However, there is still some uncertainty about this.  Thus, the UK ONS survey claimed in late May 2020 that “Individuals working outside the home show higher rates of positive tests than those who work from home”.  This is, though, probably because those self-isolating and working at home simply don’t come into as much contact with potentially infectious people outside the home.

Much of the research on which these conclusions are drawn is based on early evidence from China, as well as more recent evidence from Europe and the USA where the infection and death rates have been so high.  A particularly interesting issue is therefore whether these generalisations may also apply in other parts of the world, and especially in countries in Africa and South Asia which have yet to experience very serious rates of infection (see my previous post on On ageing populations, “development” and Covid-19).  It may well be that their governments could learn from the mistakes made in the UK and the USA and develop a more nuanced approach as outlined below.

A differentiated risk- and responsibilities-based approach to managing COVID-19

This post makes two core suggestions: states need to adopt nuanced and differentiated responses to living with COVID-19 in the foreseeable future, and that human rights considerations should be balanced by a responsibilities agenda.

A differentiated risk-based approach to COVID-19

Most governments have adopted stringent lockdown policies in response to COVID-19 that have been applied to everyone, regardless of their health risks.  This has caused considerable damage to their economies, as well as other serious health issues.  Many deaths resulting from the existence of COVID-19 are thus not actually being caused by the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus.  Numerous businesses are failing, and fit elderly people have complained vociferously about not being permitted to partake fully in “normal” society.

Now that more is known about the health risks of COVID-19, it makes considerable sense to develop context specific solutions that take into accont the risk factors noted above.  Governments must first ensure that they have an adequate and robust health service capable of dealing with the number of people who are likely to get infected, but wasteful fiascos such as the construction of new Nightingale Hospitals in the UK that were never really needed, or the numerous projects across the world to create novel designs for new venitlators for which not enough nursing staff are available (and when many people on ventilators actually die), must not be repeated.  The hospital services in some countries will come near to being overwhelmed (as in Italy), or may indeed collapse (see recent reports from Brazil, India and Pakistan which seem near this point).  However, even where countries are unable to manage the health requirements of the majority of people affected, it is still vital that what services are available are used to treat those most in need and most likely to survive treatment.  Is is also crucial that a responsibilities approach is inculcated and adopted at all scales from the state to the individual if the impact of the pandemic is to be mitigated.

It would thus seem wise to introduce comprehensive risk-based schemes through which everyone can evaluate their likelihood of being seriously ill from COVID-19 and their risk of infecting other vulnerable people, so that they can take appropriate actions to reduce such risk.  At present, and as noted above, the key risk factors seem to be:

  • age,
  • gender,
  • comorbidities,
  • ethnicity, and
  • location

Put simply, and based largely on European and North American evidence, elderly men with comorbidities from BAME backgrounds spending all their time indoors would seem to be most at risk, and we should all do what we can to help protect them.  Young, fit, active white women spending most of their time outdoors would seem to be least at risk.

This has implications for work, transport, and social life, and carefully nuanced schemes should be introduced to enable as many people as possible to live the lives that they wish to.  For example, where resources are constrained, working-at-home policies could first be made available to the most at risk, encouraging those least at risk to stay at work, or indeed to return to work as previously.  Tourism, travel and entertainment is much less risky for the fit and young, so they should be allowed to take those risks if they want to, while alternative arrangements are put in place for the most vunerably elderly Bangladeshi men (such as support for online tourism or special take-away meals for celebratory occasions).

Responsibilities- rather than rights-based approaches

For too long, rights-based approaches have dominated global and national policies, and insufficient attention has been paid to the responsibilities that are essential to ensure the extstence of well-functioning societies  (see my Prolegomena on Human Rights and Responsibilities).  All too often when a “right” is claimed, it is uncertain who has the “responsibility” to deliver it.  Many, for example, have commented on the human rights aspects of COVID-19 (see Human Rights Watch, 19th March 2020; Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, 6th May 2020; The Guardian, 29th April 2020) , but rather fewer on the human responsibilities dimension.

This is particularly reflected in the tension between individual privacy rights and communal responsibilities in terms of the imposition and use of tracking apps to identify COVID-19 contacts (Human Rights Watch, 13th May 2020; Privacy International, no date; Morley et al., 2020).  However, it also lies at the heart of discussions about wearing masks: all to often such usage is criticised for not really protecting the individual, which completely misses the point that their main use is to protect the community from infected individuals.  People thus have a responsibility to wear masks so that if they are asymptomatic their chances of infecting many others are reduced (see my Face masks and Covid-19: communal not individual relevance).

Two main implications of a shift to a more responsibilities-based approach are important:

  • The first is that governments have a fundamental responsibility to care for their most vulnerable and at risk citizens.  The shocking way in which the UK government placed its focus on “saving the NHS” above “saving vulnerable people” is an all-too-visible example of a failure to adhere to such a principle.  It was a serious injustice for UK policy to have sent elderly people with COVID-19 back into care homes and the community from hospital, as a result of which many of them died, many others were infected, and many more certainly died sooner than they would otherwise have done.  This principle, though, is also of crucial importance in countries where the health services have difficulty, or will have difficulties in the future, in coping with the COVID-19 crisis.  It is absolutely the responsibility of governments to recognise that many low-risk people will survive COVID-19 with little or no lasting health implications, and that they should be allowed to continue if they wish to in the productive economy.  However, at the same time, governments must put in measures whereby those at risk are protected, and given the wherewithall to sustain themselves.
  • The second, and closely related principle is that individuals also have fundamentally important responsibilities to others.  Some positive evidence of communal responsibility and action has been visible in countries across the world during COVID-19, but support for at-risk people has been less than many had hoped for or expected.  Moreover, there have also been substantial numbers of explicitly negative communal actions: digital-attacks on health care organisations have proliferated during the pandemic, and doctors and nurses have been victimised for spreading the coronavirus in countries as diverse as Mexico and Pakistan.  Almost always, the emphasis has been on the rights of the individual (to enjoy the beach or to party) rather than on their responsibilites to others (to protect others from the actions of the self).  Put simply, all of us have responsibilities to protect everyone else from being infected, and to enable as many people as possible to continue to live active and fulfilled lives.

Is it too much to hope for that one of the results of COVID-19 may be the creation of societies where we shift the focus more to our responsibilities towards others than attention on ourselves?  In the short term, this would mean that we should all be:

  • Thinking that we could be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, and take actions to prevent us from infecting others;
  • Caring for and serving vulnerable neighbours who cannot benefit from the freedoms that we enjoy; and
  • Taking action to self-isolate and get tested immediately we think we might be infected with COVID-19.

Whilst this is written primarily from the perspective of someone living in a country that is now coming out of lockdown, these principles apply globally, and if adopted in countries that have not yet encountered serious outbreaks of COVID-19 might help them escape some of the more serious impacts of economic shutdown.

Masai children learning in Tanzania

Masai children learning in Tanzania

[Updated 19th June 2020]

 

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On ageing populations, “development” and Covid-19

There is increasingly clear evidence that older people are more likely to die from Covid-19 than are younger people: on 17th February,  the China CDC weekly report showed that among the cases known in China by then, the ≥80 age group had the highest case fatality rate at 14.8% (with the 70-79 age group being 8% and the 60-69% age group being 3.6%); and in early April, the WHO Regional Director for Europe highlighted that over 95% of Covid-19 deaths occurred in those over 60, with more than 50% in those aged 80 years or older.  In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported in mid-April that mortality from Covid-19 increased consistently with age, with only about 13% of deaths being of people under 65.  Significantly, though it noted that men had a death rate double that of women; more recent ONS reports have also shown that (when taking into account age) Black men and women were more than four times as likely to die from Covid-19 then were those of White ethnicity, and that such differences in mortality were partly a result of socio-economic disadvantage.  These data are stark, and are as yet still not fully explained.  As people grow older, they generally have greater comorbidities, and it may be the impact that Covid-19 has on these other health problems that is more significant than age itself.

However, this is an important reminder that Covid-19 is primarily an old-people’s disease.  It is striking to recall that in 1951 life expectancy at birth in England and Wales was only 66.4 for men and 71.5 for women; in 1901 the figures were 48.5 and 52.4 respectively (ONS, 2015).  Put simply, people born 70 years ago were not expected to live to the age at which most people are now dying from Covid-19.  This has important ramifications, and raises very difficult questions.  Have people, perhaps, become over expectant about longevity?  Will Covid-19 temper our aspirations to live for ever?  Will it be a check on the ambitions of companies such as Novartis, Alphabet and Illumina to extend life well beyond 100 years (CNBC, 2019)?  Is the main problem of Covid-19 that most people living in the richer countires of the world have become too cosy in their expectations of living to a ripe old age?

Implications for Europe and north America: too many old people

Thought experiments can be a helpful means of highlighting challenging issues.  Suppose, for example, that there had been no lockdowns in Europe and North America.  It seems very likely that substantial numbers of elderly people would have died already (see projections by epidemiologists at Imperial College which suggested that without mitigation strategies Covid-19 would have resulted in 40 milllion deaths globally in 2020).  If a vaccine or cure is not found, then it still seems likely that large numbers of elderly people will indeed die in Europe at an age well short of what they and their families have grown accustomed to expecting.

However, think of the impact that this will have on the economy and health services.  Once large numbers of elderly people have died, national pension bills will fall, the burden on health services will be reduced, the percentage of people within the economically productive age range will increase, and the economic vitality of their countries will be revitalised.  If Covid-19 (or its successors) become an everyday part of life, the economic “burden” of older people will be dramatically reduced.  It is scarcely surprising that rumours  circulated about the intentions of UK government policy in early- to mid-March.  As Martin Shaw noted at the time, it had been credibly reported that the “Government’s strategy was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means that some pensioners die, too bad’; or as summed up even more succinctly by a senior Tory, ‘Herd immunity and let the old people die’”.  Whilst the government strenuosly denied this, there is a realistic logic to the idea that letting large numbers of old people die would have clear economic benefits, and would avoid the very considerable costs that are accruing as a result of economic shutdown.

I should stress that this is definitely not a scenario that I would want to encourage or endorse, but in the early part of May, the balance of popular opinion (or the influence of the business community and mainstream media in the UK) does seem to be swinging towards a view that the costs of lockdown are too high to continue to protect the elderly, especially in those countries where there have already been very high death rates (as in Belgium, the UK, France, Italy, Spain and the USA).  Yet, the 20th and latest Imperial College Covid-19 report  concludes for Italy that “even a 20% return to pre-lockdown mobility could lead to a resurgence in the number of deaths far greater than experienced in the current wave in several regions”.

Implications for Africa and South Asia: youthful countries

The real purpose of this reflection, though, is to consider the implications of the above arguments for some of the economically poorest countries in the world.  Data about Covid-19 infections and deaths in Africa and Asia are likely to be even less reliable than they are in Europe, and the countries in these continents are in any case much earlier in their encounters with Covid-19 than are those of Europe.  Recent reports, for example, suggest that the real number of deaths related to Covid-19 may be many times the number that are currently reported (see The Guardian‘s recent report on Somalia).  Nevertheless, we do have relatively accurate data about the demographic structures of most countries in the world.  The chart below therefore shows the relationships between current density of Covid-19 deaths and the percentage of population aged ≥65 for a sample of countries.[i]

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 08.33.35

This graph is striking, but difficut to interpret (and can be misleading), mainly because most countries in Africa and Latin America are only at an early stage in their Covid-19 outbreaks.  We simply do not know how many deaths they are likely to witness, and few models have yet been published that predict the likely outcomes.   However, with the very notable exceptions of Japan, Greece and Germany, it re-emphasises that high percentages of Covid-19 deaths are mainly found in those countries that have more than 15% of their populations aged ≥65.  Even Brazil, where the death rate is currently growing rapidly, is still nowhere near at the level of mortality that has occurred in Europe and the USA.  The quite remarkable achievement of Greece, with only 147 deaths by 7th May, is also highly noteworthy because despite a fragile health service and an elderly population it has managed to achieve something that most other European countries have been unable to do.  Most commentators suggest that this is mainly because it imposed a dramatic lockdown even before the first deaths were recorded.

Most countries of the world have intiated lockdowns, and these are having particularly significant impacts on the poorest and most marginalised who can least afford it. An obvious question therefore arises: if Covid-19 mainly affects the elderly, should countries with young populations (such as most of those of Africa, Asia and Latin America) follow the “older” countries in imposing strict lockdowns that will have damaging effects on their economies and the livelihoods of those who can least afford it?  Put another way, are the mitigating actions of European and North American countries, where more than 15% of their populations are ≥65, relevant to economically poorer countries with less than 10% of their populations in this age group?

It is far from easy to answer this.  Perhaps the very small numbers of people reportedly dying in Africa at present is only because the coronavirus has not yet gained a grip, and any loosening of the mitigating measures would unleash the pandemic at a scale similar to that seen in Europe.  The WHO, for example, has warned  that the Covid-19 pandemic might kill as many as 190,000 people in Africa in the year ahead (Al Jazeera, 8th May), with many more dying subsequently.  This may well be true, but there is at least a chance that the youthful populations of Africa will be better able to deal with Covid-19 than have done the older populations of Europe.  It must, though, be emphasised that many younger people who are infected with Covid-19 do indeed have serious illnesses, and some die.  We also do not yet know the long-term health impacts of this coronavirus.  Moreover, the evidence that socially disadvantaged people are also more likely to die than their more affluent neighbours further suggests that the poorest and most marginalised in these countries may well have higher death rates.

As I have illustrated elsewhere, there is some (but by no means conclusive) evidence that environmental factors may also play a role in limiting the spread of Covid-19.  If the environments of Africa and South Asia are indeed not particularly conducive to the spread of Covid-19, then their youthful populations might not need to endure the very tight lockdowns imposed in many European countries. That having been said, the rapidly increasing number of infections and deaths in Brazil (with 121,600 cases and 8,022 deaths as of 7th May), which has physical environments and climates similar to many parts of western and southern Africa, does not bode well for the future spread of Covid-19 in Africa.

Conclusions

In conclusion, there remains much that is unknown about how Covid-19 spreads and who it affects most damagingly.  The evidence from Japan, Greece and Germany shows that even when countries do have a high percentage of elderly people, it is still possible to contain and limit the spread of Covid-19, thereby preventing very large numbers of deaths.  The abject failures of governments in countries such as the UK and Belgium to manage the pandemic and save lives likewise indicate how not to respond to the pandemic.  The governments of African and South Asian countries, with their youthful populations who appear less likely to suffer severe symptoms, may well therefore have an advantage over their European counterparts.  If they can draw lessons about what has worked and what has failed, then they are also in a good position to bounce back swiftly from the economic harm caused by economic and social lockdowns.

 


[i] The selected countries included the ten most populous countries in the world (in descending order of total population, China, India, USA, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico), a selection of European countries with mixed trajectories (listed alphabetically, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland), and a diverse sample of African (alphabetically, DRC, Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania), and other (alphabetically, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Turkey) countries.

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Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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US poverty: a good example to follow?

Official US date recently released shows that the number of US citizens living in poverty rose to a record 46 million last year.  Yet the world is encouraged to believe that the US model of ‘democracy’ and ‘economic growth’ is the one that should be followed to eliminate poverty.  Surely there is a contradiction here?

The BBC reports the release of these data as follows: “The number of Americans living in poverty rose to a record 46.2 million last year, official data has shown. This is the highest figure since the US Census Bureau started collecting the data in 1959. In percentage terms, the poverty rate rose to 15.1%, up from 14.3% in 2009. The US definition of poverty is an annual income of $22,314 (£14,129) or less for a family of four and $11,139 for a single person. The number of Americans living below the poverty line has now risen for four years in a row, while the poverty rate is the biggest since 1993. Poverty among black and Hispanic people was much higher than for the overall US population last year, the figures also showed. The Census Bureau data said 25.8% of black people were living in poverty and 25.3% of Hispanic people. Its latest report also showed that the average annual US household income fell 2.3% in 2010 to $49,445. Meanwhile, the number of Americans without health insurance remained about 50 million. The data comes as the US unemployment rate remains above 9%”.

Is it not time that global organisations, aid agencies, and governments across the world stopped pretending that economic growth leads to a reduction of poverty?  Capitalism fundamentally depends on the maintenance of inequalities: between rich and poor countries, between rich and poor people.  The increase in US poverty revealed in these data reinforces such arguments.  The US ‘system’ enables Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to acquire huge wealth, while large numbers of their compatriots are consigned to poverty.

Freedom carries responsibilities.  The focus of US capitalism on the freedom of the individual at the expense of the wider public good is surely not a model that the world should be encouraged to follow.  As the BBC report notes, 50 million people in the US do not have health insurance.  While the rich can have the benefit of the latest medical research, such care is beyond the means of the poor.

These figures should be seen as a wake up call to economists and politicians across the world.  Unfettered capitalism, fueled by a self-reinforcing cycle of individual greed, can never lead to a reduction in poverty.  Only when governments act explicitly to support the most marginalised in their societies can we begin to redress the balance.

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Putting the USA in its place

Am I the only one who gets infuriated when I hear citizens of the USA referring to themselves as Americans, as though the only Americans in the world are US citizens?  America is a continent, indeed for some two continents: South America and North America.  Guatemalans, Canadians, Argentinians, Brazilians, Peruvians are all Americans.  We therefore need to invent a new word to refer to citizens of the USA, and their language.

Perhaps we should all start referring to USans (as in Jamaicans but from the USA),  USish (as in English or Spanish) and USese (as in Portuguese).  The trouble is that these do not roll easily off the tongue!  However, at least it might begin to stop the rot.  Why do so many US citizens really  think that they have a natural born right to rule the world!  If we stop calling them Americans, it might make them think twice about the real place of the USA.

Britain once imposed its rule over much of the world, but most of us born here now realise the perils of imperialism. By encouraging USans to realise that they  come from a relatively small country lacking in culture and history, we might actually be doing them a huge favour, helping them to find their true place in the world – not as an aggressor seeking to impose one particular vision of so-called democracy on the rest of the world, but instead as a peaceful neighbour seeking to do good.  After all, the USA has merely 4.5% of the world’s population, and is dwarfed by China with 19.5% and India with 17.3%.  When China and India take their rightful places as world leaders, what will poor USans do then? At the very least, the next time you hear a US citizen referring to themselves as an American, do ask whether they come from Ecuador, Venezuela or Costa Rica and see what the reaction is!

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Reflections on Obama’s acceptance speech

In response to my own blog earlier in the day,  I have to admit that Obama’s acceptance speech contains much that is good – I only hope that he is able to live up to these fine words!

It is good to see him acknowledge that there are others far more deserving: “Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened of cynics.  I cannot argue with those who find these men and women — some known, some obscure to all but those they help — to be far more deserving of this honor than I”.

Likewise, it is good to read his statement that “I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war.  What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace”.

I cannot, though, agree with his statement that “the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans”.  He claims that “We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest”. I am quite convinced that there are many in the USA who have advocated war specifically because they want to impose their will on the world. The USA as a state has regularly promoted war  – in Iraq, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Grenada…  Many people across the world have suffered explicitly because of US foreign policy – this is indeed self-interest; whether or not it is enlightened is a matter for debate.

Obama’s  agenda is in the interest of a capitalist US economy based on the individual rather than the communal values that so many people elsewhere in the world value so much.  He says, “Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting”. To me, what matters more is how the individual behaves within the context of the communities that they are part of; it is the responsibilities that we have to others that are of more importance than a claim that we have any rights as individuals.

And, please, will he, along with other citizens of the USA, stop claiming that the USA is America. He claims that “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens”.  This is debatable, but there is a huge difference between one country, the United States of America, and the entire continent, or indeed continents of America.

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