Leaders of the world’s wealthiest countries often declare sweeping goals for a recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and the intersecting – often related – crises of climate change, poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism. They vow to “build back better,” and to support “locally led” solutions. They pledge “a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet.” The refrains are so common that they verge on cliché. But do the actions of these powerful leaders match their rhetoric?
This article summarises the 15 contributions of the publication series "Shaping the Future of Multilateralism - Inclusive Pathways to a Just and Crisis-Resilient Global Order" by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's European Union and Washington, DC offices.
A series of policy papers published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung's European Union and Washington, DC offices that gives voice to civil society experts from countries with developing economies and the most vulnerable people and communities suggests the answer is a worrisome no. From trade to climate finance to digital governance – and the human rights, equality, and equity breakdowns that run through all of those global issues – the authors paint a troubling picture. They argue that the world’s richest nations have not only sidelined their poorer counterparts and profited from their resources with little return, but that they have failed to deliver on repeated pledges to remedy even their acknowledged wrongs and shortcomings, whether at home or abroad. At the same time, poorer countries have often been caught in the vice of geopolitical and geo-economic competition.
The result is growing frustration, even outrage, among ordinary citizens over the mounting injustices and cascading calamities of the pandemic. The spread of Covid-19 quickly disrupted global supply chains and bred labor rights violations as economies grew to rely even more heavily on the service sector, with delivery services, for example. The pandemic also has increased everyone’s exposure to a monopolistic, Big Tech-led economy with all its negative consequences for societies and individuals, such as rampant disinformation on social media and privacy violations even in Covid-tracing efforts. Climate change and the difficulties of rescue efforts amid pandemic precautions exacerbated the impacts of an array of natural disasters and extreme weather.
A crescendo of mutually reinforcing crises seems to be building the world over. These unprecedented catastrophes are being met by unprecedented mass protests – over pandemic-inflamed economic hardships and inequality in Colombia, Georgia, Lebanon, and most recently Cuba, for example. The latest Global Peace Index from the Institute for Economics and Peace reported in June that civil unrest rose 10 percent across the globe in 2020, to a count of 14,871 violent demonstrations, protests, and riots.
These trends show that not only are national governments not coping, but the international systems established to serve as backup solution-generators seem broken. And when these mechanisms – the G7, for example – are limited to the richest nations, they risk making earth-rocking decisions in an undemocratic and exclusionary vacuum. The undercurrent in many – if not all – of these developments is the cold brutality of persistent and structural inequality.
The 20 authors of the 15 papers in this series illuminate the depth of the problems in the three specific fields of international trade, digital governance, and climate finance, with special attention to human rights and gender equality. The researchers illustrate the profound failures of national governments and international mechanisms, and often reflect the frustrations of populations or countries that feel the rich and powerful are running roughshod over the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable for their own outsized benefit, and are doing so with impunity. The “rules” in the rules-based international order, often touted as the basis of what global peace, shared prosperity, and stability remains or can be recovered, too often are manipulated to the detriment of those who lack bargaining power and thus don’t have the agency and voice – as countries, communities, or individuals – to push back.
Far from just deploring the failing and shortcomings, the authors in this series – scholars, human rights defenders, lawyers, economists, feminists, and combinations thereof – also offer solutions. Some are admittedly ambitious, asking for no less than bold systemic change. Emilia Reyes, a program director at the feminist NGO Equidad de Género in Mexico, says the way forward “would combine rejuvenation of the United Nations system, cancellation of debt, a focus on tax justice, reform of the financial sector, and elimination of extraterritoriality that shields public and private actors from accountability for human rights violations and environmental degradation.” Any viable emergence from the Covid-19 pandemic “puts addressing climate change at its core and grounds all actions in human rights and gender equality,” says feminist economist Mariama Williams. Harjeet Singh and Indrajit Bose call for the international community to “focus on ‘climate-proofing’ development projects, frameworks, and systems; respect and protect human rights; encourage participation; and account for the disproportionate effects of climate change on women and girls.” Journalist and researcher Kim Arora says, “The countries involved must look beyond immediate geo-political or economic gains, to build a secure and enduring legacy in an increasingly interconnected and fragile world.”
High standards, perhaps, but the authors make clear that the degree and depth of today’s global challenges demands such sweeping and revolutionary solutions. In meetings from the recent G7 summit to preparations for the annual convening of the U.N. General Assembly in September, and the U.N. climate talks, COP 26, in November in Glasgow, Scotland, multilateral mechanisms are struggling to address the range and extent of risks and do so with the urgency needed. While the United States is finally re-engaging constructively and the European Union is working on legislation to implement the European Green Deal that it introduced in late 2019 with the goal of making the EU climate neutral by 2050, more action is needed and more quickly. That includes adequate climate finance, fair trade in goods and digital services, and a global economic and financial system that promotes and protects diversity, human rights, and gender equality.
The authors in our series call for the wealthiest countries to acknowledge responsibility for the world’s existential threats, and take urgent action to address the consequences and reduce future risks. These experts outline solutions and provide useful models, especially from the Global South. Besma Soudani Belhaj and Najla Abbes, co-founders of the League of Tunisian Women Voters, cite, for example, the 2017 Organic Law Related to the Elimination of Violence against Women that made their country the first in the Arab world “to incorporate into its laws the notion of political violence based on gender, one of 19 countries that have criminalized this form of violence.” Researcher Arina Muresan of the Institute for Global Dialogue and policy analyst Sanusha Naidu offer the example of South Africa’s leadership in pushing in the past for accessibility of HIV/AIDS medicines and more recently for “rights-based initiatives to pursue more licensing agreements for domestic industries to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine.”
The research and thinking by this distinguished group of authors provides an essential reference point for the kinds of sweeping global efforts that will be needed to exit the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, reduce the destructive effects of climate change, and establish rights-respecting global systems that truly work for people and planet.
Meeting the needs for climate finance and climate justice
The impacts of climate change have hit particularly hard – and disproportionately – in countries and populations that historically have benefitted the least from the fossil fuel-driven economic development that causes manmade climate change. The same countries and people also have suffered for decades – sometimes centuries – from natural resource extraction, colonialism, and exploitation that mostly benefits the foreign investors who reap far in excess of what they sow. Multiple intersecting crises (loss of biodiversity, Covid-19, poverty/economic recession) have aggravated those disproportionate impacts.
“These crises are all interconnected, with pervasive and mutually reinforcing effects that have their origin in a neoliberal economic system that is exploitative and extractivist in nature,” Reyes declares. “However, many policymakers and technocrats working to overcome global challenges continue to ignore core structural linkages.” Singh, senior advisor at Climate Action Network-International, and Bose, senior researcher with India-based Third World Network, note that, “Climate change and its impacts have already inflicted severe harm on millions of people, violating their human rights (such as the right to life, health, food, and an adequate standard of living).”
Several authors note that the world’s most prosperous countries, which the U.N. climate agreements acknowledge are responsible for global warming and must take the lead in tackling it, must also recognize that the climate financing they have provided – and which remains below what they have pledged – pales in comparison to the financial outflows they have captured from developing countries. They have benefited not only from the proceeds of the ongoing exploitation of natural resources, but also from economic and financial systems skewed in their favor (e.g. for tax avoidance) and/or against the interests of poorer countries (e.g. as unsustainable debt levels, the resulting lack of fiscal space and multiple intersecting crises hobble the ability of vulnerable developing countries to address the effects of the climate change that is occurring due to the activities of those richer nations).
The effects of climate change, which broadly undermine and violate human rights, are further differentiated by gender and other factors such as age, disability, or migration background. “Women and girls are especially impacted by climate change … because of deeply rooted gender norms, inequalities, and stereotypes,” Singh and Bose write. “Women and girls absorb higher burdens of meeting the need for unpaid care in times of climate-related shocks and stressors … and they are exposed to heightened risks of gender-based and sexual violence, such as in emergency shelters after extreme weather events.” Reyes cites feminist economists who estimate that, if the “care economy” in which most women are engaged in either paid or unpaid work were to be valued in terms of minimum wage, “it can add up to 60 percent to a country’s Gross Domestic Product.”
So any solution to the current interconnected global crises must focus on gender equality but also go broader. Reyes advocates for systemic reforms anchored in a “decolonial” feminist framing that puts people and the planet first, rather than seeking to defend or resurrect the systemic status quo. That includes better valuing and supporting women’s unpaid and underpaid care work with investments in improved care infrastructure.
While existing multilateral climate funds have made strides in integrating gender equality considerations over the past decade, their approaches remain superficial and are too frequently treated as an add-on or handled as pilot approaches, Williams writes. This, in turn, points to larger problems with the multilateral systems tasked to address climate change: they are slow to adapt and respond, slow to deliver, and mired in outdated thinking and structures. While the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) remains the core multilateral framework, it is not delivering fast enough, lacks enforcement capability, and suffers from a trust deficit in negotiations, says Mohamed Adow, director and founder of Power Shift Africa. Developing countries have lost trust in developed countries because of their failure to fulfill their own emissions-reductions requirements and to meet their finance obligations – such as the longstanding commitment to provide USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to support developing countries’ climate actions (one estimate put the amount provided in 2017 at USD 71.2 billion), and the costs are growing.
Adow and Singh/Bose note that even that amount is a small subset of what is needed just for adaptation (the actions required to increase the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems to climate change), which is the priority in most developing countries. (The other category of actions against climate change is mitigation, which reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that cause the change in the first place.) Not only is the quantity of funding falling short, but the quality of finance provided is also inadequate, with too little for adaptation and too much of that in the form of loans instead of grants. This adds insult to injury for the poorest countries, which already face increasing and unsustainable debt in the wake of Covid-19.
Reyes and Williams suggest a more comprehensive debt cancellation program through a sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, while Adow proposes experimenting with new approaches that would tie debt relief to climate actions such as debt-for-climate-swaps. Williams offers the idea of using special drawing rights (SDRs), a financing mechanism of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to support what she describes as Marshall Plan-scale needs for tackling climate change in a way that will “build back forward.” Williams and Adow call for reform in how debt relief eligibility is determined, noting that the traditional GDP-focused calculations exclude the especially vulnerable Small Island Developing States (SIDS) because they are classified as middle-income countries despite their debt loads. Adow further highlights the need to resolve long-standing definitional issues of what can be counted as climate finance and how to ensure accountability for delivering the necessary funding.
Even where climate finance is provided, such as via multilateral mechanisms like the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the questions of who gets access and under what conditions remain an issue. As the largest multilateral climate fund, the GCF is a core financing instrument to support the implementation of the Paris Agreement and, in general, to facilitate the shift to low-carbon, climate-resilient development in all developing countries. Its resources were intended to be dedicated equally to adaptation and mitigation activities. But Adow and Singh/Bose say access needs to be eased, including by dismantling unnecessary and artificial barriers – such as those that attempt to set a hard dividing line between investments for adaptation or development. Instead, in the case of finance for adaptation, the emphasis should be on supporting existing national structures and programs in developing countries. Singh and Bose call for innovations such as promoting the resiliency of social protection programs that “have a crucial role to play in protecting women, communities, and economies from catastrophic climate impacts, and in avoiding a mutually reinforcing spiral of climate vulnerability and poverty by strengthening resilience, and advancing development goals and human rights.”
The best elements of the global response to Covid-19 have illustrated that, when and where there is political will, developed countries can mobilize enormous financial sums to deal with a systemic global threat. However, on climate change, developed countries have yet to fulfill their decade-old commitment of USD 100 billion, and they will need to increase that amount substantially for a new post-2025 collective climate finance goal. So they must urgently and drastically reduce their own emissions, and increase the quantity and adequacy of the financing they provide as a matter of obligation and in order to pay for the climate debt they owe to the developing world. They should engage with their counterparts in developing countries, not as donors, but in a partnership of mutual respect and trust, to improve the quality of that financing and the speed of its delivery. Such improvements would restore urgently needed momentum to the climate process.
In digital governance, a need for inclusivity in multilateral structures
Consensus is growing that bridging the global digital divide will be a core requirement for attaining the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Access to digital infrastructure – from 5G cellular networks to data centers – and to digital technology – in fields from manufacturing and agriculture to public services – will determine whether societies can survive and thrive in a global economy that relies increasingly on trade in data and digital services. Digital technology – along with climate, health, and gender equity and equality – plays a central role in the U.S.-led G7 plan to mobilize public and private financing, with the goal to “help narrow the $40+ trillion infrastructure need in the developing world.” It remains to be seen how much G7 leaders are willing to commit within the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, which has been framed as an answer by leading democracies to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Skeptics are pointing to the Biden administration’s problems in getting even both of its domestic infrastructure bills passed.
Digital technology intersects with all of the three other focus areas of B3W. With the appropriate policy safeguards, it can play an essential role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, as well as in medical research and health care provision. At the same time, access to new technologies has to be inclusive, as the current North-South digital divide is exacerbated by a sharp gender divide when it comes to use of technology.
Yet policymakers around the world have struggled to monitor and contain the risks associated with the fast pace of technological development, including privacy intrusions by governments, criminal actors, and powerful tech monopolies; threats to innovation and democracy due to market monopolization and online disinformation; and discriminatory consequences of the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). And some of those risks disproportionately affect women or other vulnerable groups in each society.
The demands for rights-respecting policy and regulation in such a rapidly evolving field as data and digital technology prompted several of the authors to cite the need for developing capacity and infrastructure in countries that don’t have the wealth to support such technological advancements. Arora suggests, for example, that developed economies “could review existing projects to identify possible ways to provide support through capacity building and infrastructure investment.”
The European Union has a special responsibility to not only serve as a model, but also support similar regulatory development in countries and regions that are not as highly developed nor as wealthy. Its groundbreaking General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other rules in discussion – such as the draft Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act as well as the proposed Artificial Intelligence Regulation – make it the global pioneer on reining in Big Tech companies and regulating the digital economy.
The EU could yield its influence for good by setting clear guidelines on ethical issues within its own borders – and helping other countries take similar steps. The European Commission’s draft AI legislation so far contains a general ban on high-risk AI applications such as facial recognition, but carves out national security exemptions, which European parliamentarians and civil rights activists criticize as too broad. A clear ban on the use of the technology in public spaces would send a strong signal to a country like Serbia on the EU periphery to steer away from using Chinese surveillance technology in Belgrade. This phenomenon is outlined in a series paper by Danilo Krivokapić, a lawyer who directs a Serbian digital-rights organization, and two of his colleagues there, Mila Bajić and Bojan Perkov.
But any assistance by the world’s most powerful countries or blocs must be mindful of local contexts and needs. EU policymakers and advisors have to avoid trying to export EU approaches as one-size-fits-all solutions to countries in the Global South. Chenai Chair, special advisor for Africa innovation at the Mozilla Foundation, notes in her paper that, “multilateral systems are often based on the assumption that peer-to-peer interactions occur at equal degrees of power and with equal understanding of the mechanisms and bureaucracies involved.” And of course, that is rarely, if ever, the case.
As an illustration, the power of the EU as Africa’s largest trading partner has led African countries to look toward the GDPR and its preceding drafts for their own data-protection legislation. The EU also financially supports some of the work of developing such regulations. Too often, however, the imperative to conform has come at the cost of attention to local needs, Chair writes. The model law on data protection of the 16-country Southern African Development Community (SADC), for instance, which is intended as a reference for member nations developing their own regulations, fails to provide specific protections for gender minorities, who are especially vulnerable in an African context.
Furthermore, the international nature of data flows makes the governance of data and digital technologies a global challenge that requires multilateral solutions. Traditional multilateral organizations and frameworks have been, as noted in relation to climate change above, slow to address these issues. At the same time, nation-states struggle to balance the need to engage in existing and evolving international agreements with the political and complex technological issues involved in domestic legislation.
Arora notes, for example, that, even as cross-border data sharing has been essential to decoding the novel coronavirus and India has participated in that global effort, the country also has been reluctant in some cases to enter into international data-sharing agreements while domestic data-sharing laws are still being worked out. She recommends “a review and evaluation of existing arrangements and their tangible results,” which could “help India refine and formulate overarching norms for its future multilateral and/or bilateral data-sharing arrangements.”
In some cases, global governance needs to take a step back to leave room for national governments and their societies to catch up through domestic regulation for emerging technologies. With a view to the crucial negotiations about a major global e-commerce agreement at the WTO, Burcu Kilic, a lawyer who directs the Digital Rights Program at U.S. consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, notes that it can be risky for weaker states to enter into e-commerce agreements that limit their ability to regulate data flows with laws on vital public-interest issues such as data protection. Many countries with emerging and developing economies, including India and South Africa, have not joined the plurilateral discussions for these reasons. U.S. “Big Tech” has sought “to capture digital trade talks to defang domestic regulation,” Kilic says, adding that this trend “creates serious risks for privacy, fundamental rights, competition, social and economic justice, and sustainable development.” Arora makes a similar point: “Ensuring a rights-respecting framework for the free flow of information among international partners is central to pre-empting and tackling future global crises in health, climate change, displacement of people and more.”
For weaker states, a good initial strategy might be to seek additional regional cooperation before engaging on the global stage. Renata Avila, a human rights lawyer and digital rights expert, raises the alarm over the risk of “digital colonialism.”
“In the past, empires expanded their power by controlling critical assets, from trade routes to precious metals,” she writes. “Today, it is not States but technology empires that dominate the world by controlling critical digital infrastructure, data, and the ownership of computational power.” She makes the case for Latin America and the Caribbean to develop a joint vision for digital development that could put it into a stronger position globally and establish its “digital sovereignty” vis-à-vis the United States and China, whose powerful technology companies are currently carving up the continent.
At the same time, regional integration can be difficult among countries with highly diverse political systems and levels of development on a range of issues, as exemplified by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The grouping of 10 countries from Myanmar to Indonesia to Singapore “has struggled to overcome internal differences and address profound external challenges,” writes political anthropologist Deasy Simandjuntak.
As fast-moving technological advancements create new dangers for the world’s most vulnerable underrepresented groups and individuals, multilateral mechanisms must adapt and heed the calls of principled voices from among all their members. As Avila outlines, “The investment that will be required to recover from the pandemic offers a unique chance to break out of the current market logic and treat technology as critical social infrastructure that must be sustainable and requires citizen participation.”
Regional integration and rights to support low- and middle-income countries on trade
In the broader trade arena, Africa in 2021 bucked a years-long trend of rollbacks in multilateralism. On Jan. 1, 2021, trading began under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), creating a single market of 1.2 billion people, with 36 countries thus far having signed on, the largest number to establish such a free-trade agreement since the World Trade Organization was established in 1994. But Olumide Abimbola, executive director of the Africa Policy Research Institute, notes that the success of this new structure will to some extent depend on factors outside the control of Africans. Again illustrating the power imbalance is the fact that the European Union “will be key to determining the success of the AfCFTA,” because it remains the continent’s largest trading partner and its various trade ties with African countries and blocs may complicate the functioning of AfCFTA.
Muresan and Naidu say one hope for AfCFTA in the long term is that it will reduce intraregional tariff and non-tariff barriers enough to “free resources to encourage deeper value-added production in neglected manufacturing and industrial sectors.” That, in turn, may spur changes that will support a “rights-based approach to development.” But much more work is needed on other multilateral mechanisms “to achieve equitable engagement that benefits human development,” they write. They cite needed reforms in areas such as commodity pricing, overlapping regional economic communities that complicate trade terms, and the lack of intra-Africa trade that denies these countries the opportunity to trade on a more level playing field.
“Although, in principle, trade should drive improved socio-economic conditions and livelihoods, the impact has been patchy at best,” Muresan and Naidu say. “The reasons include disparate market conditions; lack of access to financial resources to enhance community-based entrepreneurial ventures; a skills deficit; poor education; and growing inequality.”
The Republic of Georgia, too, has been held back in its development by counterproductive policies of the very countries and institutions with a stated intent of supporting the country’s emergence. Instead, it has been “hampered by a modernization-driven development agenda and neoliberal policies, with too little regard for their social and environmental impacts,” writes Ia Eradze, a researcher in the political economy of finance. She cites the “high-pressure, counter-productive trade- and lending policies imposed by global powers such as the IMF, the EU, the United States, and China.”
And this is all in the era of globalization, giving lie to the common do-good assertions by the most powerful nations that control global trade. “Major multilateral institutions have long claimed that their market-oriented trade rules reduce poverty and advance development,” Muresan and Naidu note. “Instead, they hold back the developing world from a more human-centric, social-justice approach that it needs to reach its potential.”
Evren Dinçer, an assistant professor of sociology in Turkey, noted the domestic and international failures of the world’s most powerful nations during the pandemic. “Even the astonishing speed at which governments and companies such as Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Sinovac mobilized to develop vaccines wasn’t matched by systems to rapidly manufacture and distribute the shots,” he writes. “And vaccine hoarding by rich countries (some accumulating three times the amount their people would need) exposed the painfully deep inequalities across the globe.”
Powers such as the United States and the EU must walk their talk in their relationships with counterparts in the developing world, the authors say. “On the one hand,” writes Abimbola, “the EU says it wants to create a relationship of equal partners in which both listen to each other, while on the other, it refuses to heed signs that African countries are not very keen on negotiating” overlapping Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the EU that scramble trade relationships on the continent. The United States, too, has pushed for exclusionary agreements, he explains, in what amounts to “essentially an attempt by the rich countries to sneak in through the back door with the terms they want.”
But isolated successes by less powerful countries in the past to influence international trading regimes – as in the historical case that Muresan/Naidu and Abimbola cite of patents on HIV medicines – could be duplicated and expanded with better cooperation. Better regional integration could promote economic development and improve the geopolitical standing of low- and middle-income countries.
Oftentimes, intra-regional trade is also impeded by factors that could be addressed by a combination of the affected countries and international players such as the United States and the EU: poor infrastructure, corruption, cumbersome custom procedures, multiple clearing stages, inadequate information-technology infrastructure, and limited information exchange.
Finally, current trade rules need significant overhaul to reflect human rights, gender justice, and environmental concerns such as climate change, pollution, biodiversity, and others. Georgia, for instance, has an economic model – which Eradze describes as long influenced by the IMF – that is based on foreign direct investment (FDI) and “draws the country into a global competitiveness struggle for foreign capital and pushes it to loosen social and environmental standards in production, such as minimum wages, overtime payments, workplace safety, and environmental protection.”
“The pandemic has made these problems more visible,” Eradze says, “raising more questions than ever over social justice, environmental sustainability, and the general welfare of the populace.”
While the series’ authors focus on their individual fields, many common themes, observations, and shared recommendations emerge across the board. As the authors outline so clearly, multilateral mechanisms – and especially those providing more equal decision-making arrangements between developed and developing countries – remain crucial to tackling the interconnected crises facing the world as well as individual countries and populations. It is incumbent upon leaders who have the most influence over these mechanisms as well as others who seek to engage more robustly on the global stage to acknowledge the failures of the past – at home and in international structures – and introspectively, sincerely diagnose the causes of those failures. All those involved must approach the process with openness and humility based on an understanding that inclusivity, mutual trust, and partnership – not paternalism – have to be the building blocks of improved multi-stakeholder efforts primed for success. Only then can they work in concert with other leaders and civil society to craft effective, efficient, and durable solutions.
The authors also articulate the central imperative to put human rights, including civic and political rights, and gender equality at the forefront of decision-making to address multiple intersecting crises with more equitable and sustainable solutions that will benefit people and the planet. This also means addressing corrupt and abusive governance and other structural weaknesses and providing a check against the worst excesses of exploitation and abuse, both corporate and public, by increasing transparency and accountability.
Lastly, many authors focused on the importance of strengthening and expanding social support systems, not only to address people’s basic needs, but also as a matter of gender equality, to free women from the burden of providing often-unpaid and unacknowledged care services for children, the elderly, and the sick. The Covid-19 pandemic also has illustrated that addressing the core needs of the most vulnerable – shelter, food, health care, and education – requires capable institutions, financial means, and political prioritization, and can build the resiliency of people and societies to future shocks.
The expansive and detailed analyses in these 15 papers include specific recommendations as indicated above. They also point to overarching imperatives for action by all three of the main categories of players involved: the rich, powerful countries that wield the most influence; the poorer and particularly vulnerable countries struggling for respect and equity; and the international organizations and mechanisms that are intended, in most cases (an exception being the very exclusive G7, for example), to link them all for unified, coordinated, mutually beneficial results.
Recommendations for wealthy countries:
- Acknowledge the power differentials that affect perspectives, communication, and cooperation across political, social, and economic divides, and accept the responsibilities stemming from the related history of colonialism, extractivism, and racism that have disproportionately benefited industrialized countries. On climate change issues, that requires taking seriously the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), which requires all countries to address climate change, but differentiates the burden based on their capacity and their historic responsibility.
- Take extra steps commensurate with those historic responsibilities to level the decision-making playing field, both at home and globally. That means ensuring those less powerful, who represent the vast majority of the planet’s population and are most negatively affected by today’s crises, are accepted as equals at the negotiating tables and in institutions determining global structures and frameworks. Moreover, make certain they receive the technical, financial, and political support they need to ensure their voices are heard and their votes are counted.
- Strengthen and empower multilateral mechanisms that have broader representation to ensure a comprehensive range of voices and the greatest possible participation, including through support to ensure such mechanisms have the needed human and financial capacity to take on greater responsibilities.
- Deliver on unfulfilled financing commitments and obligations, such as for development assistance; for climate finance, especially for adaptation; and for digital infrastructure.
- Support fair-trade rules, such as TRIPS waivers for vaccine patents; regulation to ensure equal access to technology; and legislation that requires companies to do due diligence on environmental and social issues and on human rights at each step of the supply chain.
- Walk the talk on government transparency and accountability, respect for human rights, and increased public participation in decision-making by improving on those counts at home and in joint efforts with more vulnerable countries.
- Put human rights and equity – especially, but not only, gender equity – at the forefront of decision-making, for more durable solutions that will meet climate, technology, and trade goals that ultimately benefit far more people than short-term fixes that ultimately collapse under the weight of corrupt and abusive governance and other structural weaknesses.
- Communicate more clearly and effectively with domestic constituencies to overcome political opposition, whether from corporate interests or from ideological opponents, to the changes that must be made and the costs that must be incurred to ensure a future of shared prosperity, even in some instances to ensure survival in the face of threats such as climate change and pandemics.
- Acknowledge and embrace constructive grassroots and social movements and citizen mobilization to prevent “capture” of national conversations by the political and economic elites, whether at home or abroad. Ensure meaningful, sustained, and iterative involvement by such civil society groups and affected communities at home and abroad in all bilateral and multilateral mechanisms and forums.
- Recognize, acknowledge, and leverage models of success from outside the industrialized world, including traditional and indigenous knowledge and experiences, while ensuring that solutions are modified in line with local contexts and the needs and capabilities of local people and communities.
Recommendations for developing countries and emerging market economies of the “Global South”:
- Coordinate more closely and effectively to increase bargaining power vis-à-vis the more powerful countries that most often dominate global structures. This might include more, different, or more effective regional groupings as a start toward developing relationships and modes of joint work.
- Increase opportunities for South-South collaboration and peer-to-peer capacity building and learning exchanges. This would draw on joint histories and experiences to better articulate and further develop and implement alternative policy proposals and institutional approaches, as a counterweight – and complement – to existing structures dominated by industrialized countries.
- Press more vigorously and with more coordination for time-bound international action to relieve vulnerable countries of unsustainable debt and stem large-scale financial outflows to wealthy countries. The goal would be to increase the financial capacity of the most vulnerable countries to strengthen and expand social support systems to address the basic needs of their poorest populations in the face of economic, health, and climate-related shocks.
- Improve governance structures and strengthen domestic institutions with a focus on increasing national and sub-national government transparency and accountability, respect for human rights, and increased public participation in decision-making, to improve credibility and influence on the global stage.
- Acknowledge and embrace constructive grassroots and social movements and citizen mobilization to prevent “capture” of national conversations by the political and economic elites.
- Ensure underrepresented and marginalized population groups are included in government delegations and their views and needs are reflected within individual countries’ bargaining positions in international negotiations and forums. This especially should be considered for those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, new technologies, and unfair trade, and in particular for women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, and local communities.
Recommendations for international organizations and mechanisms:
- Move beyond the limits of government participation or membership to ensure broader and more gender-balanced ownership, by allowing for the meaningful engagement and participation of civil society groups, indigenous peoples, and local communities in negotiations and decision-making bodies, rather than as an add-on or “on the sidelines.”
- Reorient the focus of efforts to address climate change, unfair trading practices, and technology regulation to emphasize social inclusion, human rights, gender equality, and issues of systemic fairness and global justice, for more durable, equitable, effective, and sustainable resolutions.
- Address power differentials on market access in international agreements, such as trade agreements, instead of acting based on the assumption of an “equal playing field.” Rather than prioritizing unfettered market access for their own industries, wealthy nations should allow for exceptions to intellectual property protections (e.g. for medicines or for source codes of high-risk AI applications).
- Establish multilateral enforcement mechanisms in international regimes that currently lack them (such as the international climate conventions), and strengthen existing mechanisms to ensure that participating countries are held to account irrespective of their economic or political strength. Ensure that mechanisms such as sanctions are not abused by the powerful to the disadvantage of weaker parties (e.g. uneven enforcement of trade sanctions or dispute-resolution mechanisms that are dominated by industries).
- Improve transparency and accountability of multilateral structures, for example by broadcasting decision-making sessions, publishing advocacy inputs received, establishing conflict of interest rules and comprehensive information disclosure rules, including for financial audits and achievement of results.