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From COVID-19 to climate change: What we’re watching at the UNGA

‘We will all have to deal with this new way of working.’

United Nations headquarters in New York Paula Dupraz-Dobias/TNH
The United Nations headquarters in New York.

In contrast with a manic year in which the spread of COVID-19 has set off cascading social and economic emergencies around the world, the UN General Assembly’s main debate week opened on Tuesday in unusually calm fashion at the world body’s headquarters.

Normally abuzz with high-level speeches, headline-catching thematic events, epic New York traffic jams, and behind-the-scenes bilateral meetings, the annual UNGA gathering had to go virtual this year due to the operational constraints imposed by the pandemic.

“We are all in the same boat,” the UN secretary-general’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told The New Humanitarian. “We will all have to deal with this new way of working. The GA will be completely different.” 

The “debate” session has been reduced to a week-long procession of pre-recorded speeches from world leaders, but the humanitarian storm clouds are gathering, from COVID-19 to climate change and aid funding shortfalls. Here are the main issues we’re watching.

A global pandemic plan 

COVID-19, the elephant in the virtual room, will dominate much of the conversation in and around the UNGA.

Why we’re watching

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has regularly warned against the dangers of “vaccine nationalism” – if richer countries try to monopolise the supply of successful coronavirus vaccines.

Ahead of the high-level week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a unified response and said a vaccine must be viewed as a “global public good”, affordable and accessible to all.

But the COVAX Facility – set up by the WHO, the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, to ensure fair access to a vaccine – has some smaller countries worried about its fine print, fearing they may be pushed aside.

What’s next?

A UNGA side-event to promote “greater visibility of the COVAX Facility” is scheduled ahead of a 9 October downpayment deadline – by which time wealthier countries must commit to pay to secure doses and poorer countries hope to win support to receive a vaccine.

Meanwhile, a new report by the Guterres-appointed Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), entitled “A World in Disorder”, calls for greater investment in preparedness to better deal with future pandemics and health emergencies. 

Gro Harlem Brundtland, a co-chair of the group, said it can’t be left to individual donor countries to contribute piecemeal if we want an effective global system to combat future pandemics. “We cannot depend on resources coming only from the traditional ODA (Official Development Assistance), which is far too little [for] a common good, that preparedness is,” she told a virtual WHO event.

The GPMB is urging the UN and the WHO to convene a Global Health Security summit to develop a unified framework for emergency preparedness around the world.

Education and the SDGs

Even before the pandemic hit, progress on many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals remained stubbornly static, while other goals, such as food security and environmental protection, were on a reverse path.

Why we’re watching

The latest UN stocktaking lays bare the huge impacts of COVID-19, including 71 million people with limited social protection receding back into extreme poverty by the end of 2020, growing unemployment, and women and children at greater risk of abuse, including gender-based violence and labour exploitation.

With 10 years remaining until the 2030 target for achieving the SDGs, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, last year’s UNGA president, said the pandemic had transformed what was meant to be a “decade of action” into a “decade of recovery”. 

With 850 million “learners” (more than a billion in recent months) currently affected by school and university closures, SDG 4, on education, is seen as more important than ever: School suspensions increase children’s vulnerability to food insecurity (as school meals are no longer accessible), and also drive up violence, child labour, and recruitment by armed groups.

What’s next?

At an 18 September event, “SDG Moment”, Guterres said the 2030 Agenda – the package of progress the SDGs represent – provided a “guiding light for transformative recovery” from the effects of the current health crisis. 

With only two percent of humanitarian funding allocated to education, UNICEF issued a virtual appeal for its Education Cannot Wait (ECW) fund, calling for an additional $300 million. The 17 September livestream event received pledges of $29 million from donor countries.

The UN’s role

While the sharing of data and research during the pandemic hints at some global solidarity, growing nationalism and inward-looking policies – including gargantuan public spending to mitigate the economic fallout of COVID-19 – have left many questioning the UN’s relevance.

Why we’re watching

Bilateral agreements have increasingly dominated many major global issues, including security and trade. A deal-making style has dominated President Donald Trump’s international relations, while the United States has withdrawn from its leadership role at the UN.

“President Trump is very much the bilateralist, the anti-multilateralist.”

“President Trump is very much the bilateralist, the anti-multilateralist,” Wendy Sherman, US under-secretary of state under former president Barack Obama, told a UNGA-themed panel event on 21 September hosted by the International Crisis Group. “This is an administration that has deinstitutionalised policy internationally and domestically, and made it personal.”

What’s next?

The UN decided even before the onset of COVID-19 to take a rather subdued approach to its 75th anniversary and focus on multilateralism as its central theme, as its half-hour film, “Nations United”, showcases. An online survey, part of a “global conversation” Guterres promoted for the event, showed 95 percent of people thought international solidarity was “essential” or “very important”.

“More than seven decades on, multilateral institutions need an upgrade to more equitably represent all the people of the world, rather than giving disproportionate power to some and limiting the voice of others,” Guterres said in opening remarks on Tuesday.

The United States and China

China has increased its visibility within the UN; both financially – in the case of its raised contributions to the WHO after the US withdrew funds – and diplomatically, in reinforcing its leadership at the head of three UN agencies. However, US citizens head some of the UN giants, including the World Bank, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the UN’s political department. 

Why we’re watching

With only weeks left before the US presidential election, Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, expects Trump to further vilify China, which he has accused of influencing the WHO, and possibly to announce further financial cuts to the world body.

While Guterres has sought to cultivate a working relationship with the US president, even one of his most straightforward initiatives – a Security Council resolution calling for a global ceasefire during the pandemic – was dashed after endless wrangling between the United States and China over a reference to the WHO in the text (Trump wanted it removed).

What’s next?

If he wins in November, Trump’s opponent in the US presidential election, Joe Biden, may continue to take a hardline approach to China. But he has vowed to restore international alliances and suggested that a summit of democracies could be held – an implicit swipe at Trump, who, his critics say, has favoured relations with dictators, but possibly also at the Security Council, where Russia and China hold permanent seats.

“No one will be keeping his fingers crossed more on election night than António Guterres.”

“No one will be keeping his fingers crossed more on election night than António Guterres,” Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UN deputy secretary-general, told the ICG panel.

Climate inaction

What a difference a year makes. In 2019, teen activist Greta Thunberg was dominating the pre-UNGA headlines, even during her transatlantic zero carbon sailing trip to New York.

Climate marches during, before, and after last year’s General Assembly were energised by global youth movements such as national sections of Fridays for Future, which provided support to Indigenous groups, precursors in the global environmental struggle.

Why we’re watching

The pandemic, which many a climate summit and IPCC report had warned of, has overshadowed the growing climate movement.

Official negotiations are at a standstill after the COP25 summit in Madrid closed without agreement on mitigation, adaptation, and finance measures, and environmental groups are looking to the 2020 UNGA to help regenerate the movement.

A UN biodiversity report published in time for the UNGA said none of the 10-year targets set in 2010 to improve the environment have been achieved.

“The more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own wellbeing, security and prosperity,” it stated, adding that Indigenous communities – often the hardest hit by environmental decline – are being left out of discussions to address these failings.

What’s next?

A global march is set for this Saturday, 26 September, towards the end of the UNGA’s Climate Week, while a political “Pledge on Nature” by leaders from Costa Rica, the EU, and the United Kingdom (as the COP26 host country), is expected next week, on 28 September.

Initially due to take place in November, COP26 has been rescheduled for November 2021 due to the pandemic – it is still scheduled to take place in the Scottish city of Glasgow. Activists hope a high-level Biodiversity Summit planned for next week, 30 September, can start generating some momentum and capture the attention of government environmental officials.

Aid cash crunch

A growing funding shortage at the UN is expected to deepen as countries look inward first to contain the social and economic effects of the pandemic.

Why we’re watching

Warnings of what funding shortfalls could mean are regularly stressed by humanitarian agencies, but this time the financial horizon looks particularly gloomy.

“While there has been a prioritisation of humanitarian funding this year to deal with the frontline COVID emergency, the longer-term development spend trend is horrible,” Malloch-Brown, the former UN official, told TNH. 

“While there has been a prioritisation of humanitarian funding this year to deal with the frontline COVID emergency, the longer-term development spend trend is horrible.”

The World Food Programme (WFP), for example, recently announced it had to reduce cash transfers by up to 30 percent for more than 2.7 million refugees in eastern Africa and warned it would have to cut further if emergency funding did not materialise.

“Donor countries will tread very carefully to not commit to spending they may struggle to afford and which may be domestically controversial,” said Gowan, from the ICG.

What’s next?

More private sector financing will certainly be solicited to fill gaps. For example, climate summits have mobilised major corporate donors – to complement government contributions – as hundreds of billions of dollars are sought to effectively address global warming. 

As a letter from institutional investor group Climate Action +100 recently demonstrated, pressure to act is taking place outside the global body and its agencies. In the letter, the activist group, which manages $47 trillion in assets, asked 161 high-emitting companies to put climate targets in place to commit to net-zero emissions.


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