In his keynote speech to world leaders at this year’s UN General Assembly, the secretary-general sounded exasperated.
“The divergence between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous by the day,” António Guterres said. “It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade.”
“Today’s global financial system was created by rich countries to serve their interests many decades ago,” he went on. “It expands and entrenches inequalities. It requires deep structural reform.”
Indicating that Guterres has perhaps reached the limits of his patience with business as usual, his spokesperson later described him as “angry”, and characterised his language before the UN’s annual convening of member states in New York as “undiplomatic”.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the invasion of Ukraine mark what the UN secretary-general has described as both a “historic inflection point” and the “biggest shared test since the Second World War”.
He is not alone in giving such warnings.
“It’s high time we have a fairer, more effective response to global challenges.”
Against this backdrop, I was struck by how many world leaders in New York were talking more urgently about ending unequal power dynamics and forging a more equitable world order.
At an event on “Global Public Investment” – an emerging aid approach that would see all countries contribute, make the decisions, and benefit from global public goods – Avinash Persaud, special envoy to the prime minister of Barbados on investment and financial services, said: "We have an internationalism today that, actually, in many ways, beats up developing countries."
How so? Vaccine equity is one example.
“When COVID hit the world, we African people were humiliated,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS and a native of Uganda, said at an event focused on access to vaccines. “We were told: Stand at the back of the queue and wait for donations that were not coming.”
“Let me be blunt,” she told a separate event: “The big lesson from [HIV/]AIDS and from the COVID pandemic is that the current system to respond to global health challenges is inadequate. It’s outdated. It’s colonial. It doesn’t work.”
Power, she said, is in the hands of only a handful of powerful people: “It’s high time we have a fairer, more effective response to global challenges.”
Take climate financing as another example.
During his speech, Guterres called on developed economies to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies and redirect the funds to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis. “This is a fundamental question of climate justice,” he said.
UN Security Council reform
But many of those attending the UN General Assembly pointed out that if power dynamics are really to improve, fundamental changes in global governance are required.
Nearly every African leader referred to the urgent need for reform of the UN, and specifically of the UN Security Council, which sees five permanent members – the United States, the UK, France, Russia, and China – hold veto power over international security issues, while huge swathes of the world have no representation.
The make-up of the Security Council has led to paralysis – or “dysfunction”, as many observers would call it – whereby it fails to prevent or resolve conflicts because of the interests of one of its permanent members, and is instead reduced to a geopolitical battleground between Western powers on one side and Russia and China on the other.
The Security Council’s credibility was perhaps most powerfully and recently damaged by its inability to act against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Here are some of the voices calling for change:
Likely as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, the calls for greater fairness in the global architecture aren’t just coming from those left out of the corridors of power anymore – they’re coming from leaders in the Global North as well.
In his speech to the General Assembly, US President Joe Biden said it was time for the UN Security Council to become more inclusive; promised that the US would refrain from using the veto power it holds; and voiced his support for increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent members of the Council.
Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, told a private reception, “We are in a geopolitical recession. Political institutions no longer function well for the balance of power on the planet.”
And as UNGA week started, the African-American president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, wrote in The New York Times: “Our international rules-based order through which the world’s nations pursue global peace and development is crashing into the limits of its founding vision.
“We must reform the architecture of our global order – the blueprint for our system of international relations and development finance.”
So while these calls have existed for decades, there’s a degree of convergence now that a new system of global governance is needed.
The changed narrative of this year's UNGA – from the more traditional focus on helping people in need, reducing poverty, and addressing global threats, to one more centred around questions of global equity and justice – underlined this clear shift.
Here’s another example of how things are evolving: At a private convening about decolonising philanthropy hosted by The New Humanitarian on the sidelines of UNGA, a conversation between civil society leaders and American foundations very quickly morphed from how to channel aid more locally to considering aid as reparations.
“A conversation about reparations at UNGA? That’s badass,” said one attendee, noting how the discourse had shifted.
I’m certainly not used to hearing the language of “rich countries entrenching inequality” coming in such stark terms from the very top in these kinds of multilateral settings.
As Degan Ali, a vocal Somali-American activist and aid worker who has long campaigned for change, told me: “I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.”
Building a new future
These calls for equity at a more fundamental level match what we at The New Humanitarian have long heard from the communities we report on: Many say they don’t want to keep receiving aid year after year – they want changes to the geopolitical dynamics and power imbalances that lead to their countries being in need in the first place.
I’ve heard over and over that our current global architecture just isn’t fit for purpose. But what could an alternative look like?
Nearly 80 years ago, World War II led to the creation of the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and many of the institutions involved in aid today.
We now find ourselves at a similar inflection point.
Last year, in a report called “Our Common Agenda”, Guterres presented a new vision for global cooperation, including what he calls a “New Global Deal” to rebalance power and resources between developed and developing countries.
So what might that future hold?
The New Humanitarian’s Rethinking Humanitarianism series will be expanding its scope to try and answer exactly that, re-imagining what the global governance structures of the future could look like.
Season 3 of the Rethinking Humanitarian podcast will explore alternatives to the UN Security Council, fairer climate financing, how reparations can replace aid, the concept of Global Public Investment, and what more equitable trade policies would mean for countries in need of aid. We will surface voices from the Global South in these discussions, and we will debate reform vs. revolution.
For Solange Baptiste, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and a member of the “expert working group” on Global Public Investment: "Communities, civil society [are] just absolutely frustrated. The system does not work for us. The system is designed – very well – for those who have power to retain their power. So I'm not about fixing the system, I think we need to burn it all down and build something that works for communities."
South African professor and longtime UN watcher Tim Murithi shares her assessment, but he is optimistic about the future: “Paradoxically, being in such a crisis situation might be a catalyst rather than a hindrance – because it was the absolute devastation of the Second World War that led to the establishment of the United Nations.”
Listen to the Season 3 trailer, subscribe to the podcast, and listen to past episodes here.
With reporting by Melissa Fundira.