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The necessary voice of the global south

Oct 09,2021 - Last updated at Oct 09,2021

MADRID — “We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes”, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres declared in his speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly’s high-level meeting for leaders of its 193 member countries. When it comes to two of those crises, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the leaders of smaller and developing countries, rather than those of the world’s major powers, that had the most compelling stories to tell.

Nigerien Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassoumi Massaoudou, for example, highlighted the “devastating effects” of climate change in his country. These include intensifying droughts, such as the one in 2010 that killed an estimated 4.8 million cattle, roughly 25 per cent of the country’s herd, at a cost of more than $700 million.

Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten to cause irreversible changes to the ecosystems of Pacific island countries, and even to submerge them completely. “Will Tuvalu remain a member state of the UN if it is finally submerged?” asked Prime Minister Kausea Natano.

The fact that developing countries are facing such immediate and existential threats highlights the moral imperative of effective climate cooperation. But developed economies should also be motivated by enlightened self-interest. The European Central Bank estimates that, without climate action, Europe’s GDP would shrink by 10 per cent, causing a 30 per cent rise in corporate defaults. And the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will threaten global food security.

But our chances of avoiding the worst effects of climate change are fading fast. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C, or even 2°C, above pre-industrial levels will be impossible.

Voices from the Global South at the UN General Assembly also offered important perspectives on the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Namibian President Hage Geingob called out the “vaccine apartheid” that is impeding progress toward ending the pandemic. And, indeed, our multilateral system has utterly failed to deliver on its commitments to ensure vaccine equity across countries. As former British prime minister Gordon Brownrecently pointed out, only 2 per cent of adults in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, compared to over 50 per cent of adults in most high-income countries.

The world has proved highly efficient at making COVID-19 vaccines: We now produce 1.5 billion doses per month. And yet we have been grossly wasteful in distributing them. According to Airfinity, a major research firm, 100 million unused doses will pass their expiration dates by the end of this year, if we do not act now to redistribute them. The COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility, which aimed to distribute at least two billion doses to low-income countries by the end of 2021, has so far rolled out only 300 million.

Like climate action, vaccine equity is both a moral and a practical imperative for the advanced economies. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more likely it is to mutate into new, more transmissible, deadly, and vaccine-resistant variants. Already, countries with high vaccination rates have had to reimpose restrictions, owing to the spread of the Delta variant, against which vaccines are less effective.

Beyond ensuring vaccine equity today, the international community must strengthen the World Health Organisation’s preparedness for public-health emergencies. Early detection of future crises will be possible only if we have a capable, well-funded multilateral body. But, as it stands, assessed contributions account for less than a quarter of the WHO’s budget, making it dependent on voluntary contributions.

There are high barriers to progress. The UN General Assembly meeting unfolded at a time of escalating geopolitical confrontation, which is increasingly playing out in the Indo-Pacific. On the heels of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States established a new security and technology alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom, AUKUS, heightening tensions with China.

An escalation of hostilities in the Indo-Pacific, which accounts for about 65 per cent of the global population, 62 per cent of world GDP, and 46 per cent of total merchandise trade, would have devastating consequences. And there are numerous potential triggers. Taiwan is proving to be a particularly dangerous in US-China relations, with tit-for-tat military exercises over the island becoming an increasingly frequent occurrence, increasing the chances of a miscalculation or accident.

Amid such high tensions, climate cooperation becomes increasingly difficult. This was apparent during US Climate Envoy John F. Kerry’s recent trip to Tianjin, which highlighted just how strained bilateral relations have become in a range of areas, including trade, human rights and democracy, and defense and security in the South China Sea. Speaking to Kerry via video link, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned bluntly that climate cooperation will be unsustainable unless the relationship improves.

The US-China rivalry is also hampering efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, as the two countries engage in “vaccine diplomacy”: Providing vaccines to third countries as a way to establish long-term political dependencies and geopolitical influence. This approach compromises the safe and fair distribution of vaccines, not least because it neglects many countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, where the virus will continue to spread, and mutate, unchecked.

The UN General Assembly meeting left its audience with a sense both of dire urgency and of déjà vu. As Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley lamented, “How many more times will we then have a situation where we say the same thing over and over and over, to come to naught?” The answer is, in no small part, up to the UN.

Despite its shortcomings, the UN has long formed the heart of the multilateral system. As we head towards the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, it must prove that it can translate calls for action into real progress. And it must not forget to listen to the Global South.


Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary-general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain, is President of EsadeGeo — Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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