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Build the world back better

June 4, 2020

Bike lanes are all very well, but it’s global change that really counts.

At a time when politicians and commentators are talking about the need to rebuild more sensibly after Covid-19, it’s more important than ever to think globally. Most recent health, economic and environmental crises were international, and so must be the remedies. This view isn’t misty-eyed one-worldism; it’s self-preservation.

Pandemics like Covid-19 are inherently global. The first death was reported on January 11. Ten days later the virus was being treated in half a dozen countries. The pathogen’s spread has now made it more lethal than any other in nearly a century.

The only way to tackle it successfully is to coordinate the international response, sharing information on its causes and proliferation, and collaborating on containment and vaccines.

Heading off any future potential viral outbreaks at source would be the best way of preventing more crises. The next Covid will probably come from the developing world. This means large-scale coordinated international humanitarian and development assistance in zones of potential concern — before the fact, not after.

Ebola, for instance, was a story of poverty and over-stretched West African health systems as much as it was a terrible new illness. Communities and hospitals simply couldn’t cope. The prospect of such a disease reaching the scale of Covid is even more horrifying than the original catastrophe.

Investment in vulnerable countries’ economies, national revenue collection and health systems needs to be scaled up — not only an act of caring, but a form of insurance against future disasters.

A further reason to think and act globally is that health and environmental shocks are connected. Ebola and Covid can be traced to the invasion of isolated ecosystems and to over-intensive farming techniques.

Humans are exploiting animals to unprecedented levels and intruding more and more on the habitats of previously less-contacted species. Without joined-up thinking, separate health and environmental initiatives will simply fall short of objectives.

Three out of four new infectious diseases come from animals. Covid has been linked to bats and Pangolins in East Asian meat markets.

According to the UN Environment Programme: “[The] Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the result of forest losses leading to closer contacts between wildlife and human settlements; the emergence of avian influenza was linked to intensive poultry farming; and the Nipah virus was linked to the intensification of pig farming and fruit production in Malaysia”.

It’s long been clear that global and local pressures on the environment must be addressed internationally. Just as burning and logging the Brazilian rainforest amounts to destruction of the world’s biggest carbon sink, so too, Chinese, European and US emissions in effect cause coastlines on the other side of the world to be swamped.

The largest carbon emitters can each make a difference on their own, but no single country will do so without another first committing, which is why a commonly-negotiated binding agreement is so essential.

And it’s no good folk in the rich world thinking they’ll stop domestic flooding only by recycling more or installing bike lanes. Enlightened though such moves are, global carbon cuts will have an incalculably larger benefit.

In the same way that climate breakdown blows back on the rich in the form of health and national environmental emergencies, so does global poverty itself. The main reason Europe has recently faced such large refugee inflows is that some people from poor or unstable countries understandably want to leave.

Immigrants are in reality good for the countries they arrive in, working hard in the jobs locals don’t want to do and forming a valuable source of dynamism and entrepreneurship.

But no-one wants to fester in a refugee camp. And anti-immigration sentiment is easily manipulated by short-sighted populists; arguably the biggest current scourge of the rich world.

As mercenary as it sounds, reducing poverty at source and reducing overseas conflict would make it safer and more attractive for poor people to stay at home and help them live more sustainably.

Poor communities are often the guardians of the natural environment on which the rich countries depend. The Kayapo and other Brazilian tribespeople defending their areas of the rainforest from logging and mining are in effect acting on behalf of the world. Pacific islanders who protect their seas from illegal fishing safeguard two-thirds of the earth’s surface.

Conversely poverty can lead to unsustainable exploitation of the natural environment. Deforestation and illegal mining, for example, are partly economic in origin, as people search for fuel and income. Drought and flooding also contribute to emigration.

Economic instability makes for an increasingly global undertow to health and environmental stress. Economic crises have been deepening and becoming more regular, and globalisation has synchronised the cycles of several markets, regions and countries which used to be relatively independent.

A currency wobble soon becomes a financial meltdown, and before long a worldwide economic downturn. As we’re now finding out, environmental, refugee and health problems become more acute amid growing poverty and insecurity.

Depending on how you define the term, a crisis has struck about once a year since 1990, beginning with widespread recession among developed countries, a series of national calamities, then the Asian collapse and the Russian devaluation and default toward the end of the decade.

The 2000s kicked off with the recession brought on by the bursting of the dotcom bubble – then turmoil really got going with the 2007-2009 global economic crisis and the fallout across Europe. This rocky road ended in 2020 with the worst economic crash in centuries, the impact of which will play out for many years.

New foundations

These health, environmental and economic convulsions are inherently linked. They can’t be addressed by one nation alone behind closed borders. As unlikely as it currently sounds in a fragmenting world, the only answer is common action using fit-for-purpose global rules and institutions.

A global green new deal is critical, reflating the world economy with sustainable infrastructure ready to serve people and the planet. Not only must the Paris climate targets be met, but policies put in place to reduce carbon dependency, protect ecosystems and water resources, and alleviate poverty.

UN reform is a prerequisite for such an ambitious programme, starting with full representation of all of the world’s regions on the Security Council rather than only the five powerful nations that won the second world war.

Other than China, no Asian country is a permanent member — nor any African or Latin American nation. Concerted and unified pressure from these rising regions can lead to real change.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals, worthy though they are, are now beginning to look over-ambitious, with not enough done to ensure compliance. The machinery for implementation needs to be put in place before it’s too late.

One of the most sensible ways in which the rich world could build back better would be to get its own economic house in order, ending the financial lawlessness that leads to worsening crises. This means resetting the monetary system, with coordination of global macroeconomic policy, exchange rate management and capital flows.

As part of this reset, leadership of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – at the helm of the global economy – needs to change so that all countries are properly represented in leadership, ending the anachronism whereby Europe and the US split leadership between them.

Radical options to be re-explored include an international clearing union, world currency and global minimum wage.

Further taxing international financial transactions would throw sand in the wheels of international flows and deter speculators. This is particularly needed in the case for commodity derivatives speculation, which directly causes poverty and hardship.

Instead of the world having to bail poorer governments out so often and write off loans, it would be better to avoid the conditions that created the debt in the first place, which include forcing austerity policies on to poor or emerging countries, making them reliant on international capital markets and making it difficult for them to earn foreign exchange. The UN has even proposed a sovereign debt forum and an international mechanism for restructuring sovereign debt.

Broad-based support for the least developed countries would help head off future health and environmental ructions at source and cushion the impact on the worst off. This support needs to encompass trade, investment, commodities, technology and climate breakdown.

Some have even proposed a Marshall Plan for health, with wealthy countries clubbing together to kickstart mass investment in health infrastructure among poorer nations.

If all of this sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. The very foundations of the world are creaking, and this parlous state demands unified health, environmental and economic action. Weakness and indecision will only lead to further division, heralding yet worse calamity.

Crisis need not feed on itself. Enlightenment can spring from the darkest places. Just as the old international system emerged from the second world war, extreme stress can, against the odds, bring new beginnings.

As Lenin said, there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen. Instead of waiting for the weeks when a crumbling house turns to dust, it would be better to start rebuilding now.

 

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