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For equitable access to vaccines globally, we need action, not just mere words

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For equitable access to vaccines globally, we need action, not just mere words

— Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Kingsley Ighobor
From Africa Renewal: 
11 October 2021
WHO calls for equitable access to future COVID-19 vaccines in Africa.
For equitable access to vaccines we need action, not just words.

Botswana’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile, is the current President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), that is tasked with coordinating UN efforts on sustainable development and advancing internationally agreed goals. He took office amid a global pandemic, climate crisis, rising poverty, and growing inequalities, among other challenges. In Part 1 of this interview with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor, Ambassador Kelapile explains what he seeks to achieve this year and what his presidency means for Africa. These are excerpts:

Collen Vixen Kelapile, président du Conseil économique et social des Nations Unies (ECOSOC)
Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)

You were elected the President of the 77th Session of ECOSOC at a very challenging time. What will success look like for you at the end of your tenure next year?

Indeed, we have COVID-19 and other pre-existing situations such as climate change, extreme poverty and inequality. And then there is the imperative to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But I must say, even during normal times, leadership itself is already a serious enough responsibility because there are so many expectations to deliver on all the agreed objectives.

In my case, implementation must be done amid the challenges posed by COVID-19. However, I’m confident that even in tough times like this, one could be made a strong leader.

First, success would be if ECOSOC, under my leadership, is able to have clear analysis on the situations that you referred to: COVID-19, extreme poverty, climate change, and so on, so that we are in a better position to offer proper policy guidance to member states on how to respond to these challenges, including recovering from the pandemic while making progress on SDGs implementation.

Second, success would be measured on the extent to which we can mobilize the political will around climate change, especially if we can improve the understanding about its social and economic dimensions. The most vulnerable countries—the small island nations, the least developed countries and the landlocked countries - are bearing the brunt of climate change.

Third, would be if we are able to reinforce the mandate of ECOSOC itself. We should use ECOSOC’s convening power to act as a very formidable, multistakeholder platform that also focuses on fostering dialogue amongst the member states.

Fourth, is if we can galvanize momentum and impetus to engage more in producing evidence-based policies. This relates to the first point as well, which is how to effectively address some of the deep-rooted issues such as inequality - an amplification of structural racism and discrimination especially during the pandemic.

The fifth measure would be the extent to which ECOSOC can mobilize solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lastly, success would be inclusivity, which is one of my eight priorities. It is the extent to which other stakeholders’ voices are heard and factored into the decisions that we make as ECOSOC. This would go a long way in advancing the work that we do and in achieving the SDGs.

Everything you have highlighted requires a multilateral approach. What would you say is the state of multilateralism today?

A very good question. I think multilateralism didn't need a pandemic to get worse; things were already bad. The divisiveness that has over the years creeped into multilateralism has undermined the comparative advantage that comes with when we speak with one voice. Over time, many debates that should focus on the mandates of the intergovernmental bodies, norm setting and deliberations on very important issues had almost become diluted by confrontational approaches.

So, there is no doubt that over the years, multilateralism suffered a lot of erosion.

Are you confident that you can accomplish the goals that you have set?

Oh, yes! If we cannot be confident in what we have set ourselves to do, we might prematurely give in. There are challenges we face, but our current situation can translate to an opportunity to achieve the transformation that we need, especially in the implementation of the SDGs.

As the 12th African president of ECOSOC, what should Africa expect from your tenure?

As you know, ECOSOC is there to serve the people. There's no exception to who ECOSOC serves, but of course, for Botswana, we are very proud to be doing this for the first time since 1945. For me, this [presidency] gives Africa significant leverage and opportunity to advance our own continental Agenda 2063.

I think as much as I'm here to serve all the member states based on the programmes of the work of ECOSOC, it goes without saying that home is home and that obviously, I'm expected to also help identify priorities that are significant to my continent. So, it's a moment that allows Africa to leverage the leadership of ECOSOC, through me, to ensure that we implement that vision of the ‘Africa We Want’ and also because it reinforces the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

COVID-19 has had ramifications for Africa’s social and economic development. While vaccination is key to containing the virus, Africa is the least vaccinated region currently. Is there a role for ECOSOC in this regard?

When I was confirmed in this position on 23 July, I said in my statement that one of my broad priorities was to advocate for all developing countries, especially in ensuring equitable access to vaccines. In fact, I said in my statement that I will do exactly what my predecessor did - convene a special session of ECOSOC during the first quarter of 2022, at which the member states, the global community and all stakeholders will take stock of how far we have come, especially in our response efforts, particularly on this issue of equitable distribution or access to vaccines.

What more can you achieve with the session you plan to convene?

There’s a lot that can be achieved. Of course, convening a meeting itself doesn't achieve anything if the outcomes are not going to be followed through, which is often the case. But there is value in deliberations. The convening power, the amplification of messages of critical importance, and in this case, the advocacy for equitable access to vaccine is what one would want.

Hopefully there will be actions that will emanate from that process. It's easy to say no one is safe until everyone is safe, but how are we making sure that we follow that statement with concrete actions? So, my hope is that after such a convening, we would emerge with concrete pledges and commitment, followed by action, not just words.

Prior to COVID-19, there were socioeconomic inequalities between countries and regions. The pandemic has worsened the situation. Do you have a formula for bridging this inequality gap?

I wouldn't say an outright formula exists, but of course we need to do something about the situation. It’s certain that these inequalities, which predated COVID-19, will widen as you rightly point out. This issue is one of the eight broad priorities that I outlined in my 23 July statement. The pandemic will increase inequalities both within and between countries. And the problematic aspect is that developing countries have very little capacity to cope. 

The recovery also is not going to be easy. The fiscal space has shrunk. Stimulus packages have at least supported the advanced countries, but for Africa, this has not been easy. Again, we need to work on access to the vaccines.

We need to make sure that the recovery process is inclusive to prevent any worsening of inequalities. We need stronger and resilient social protection and health systems, and we need to support those who are the most vulnerable in our societies.

We need multilateralism and global cooperation to ensure that we address the issue of debt, for example, ensuring debt is at levels that are manageable by developing countries. There is already talk about what can be done about the Special Drawing Rights allocations held by the IMF.

We can also look at our tax systems in Africa. Our domestic resource mobilization is undermined by the fact that we are not really maximizing tax revenues to enhance our fiscal space.


Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile (on screens), President of the Economic and Social Council and Permanent Representative of Botswana to the United Nations, addresses the ECOSOC plenary meeting (23 July 2021 to 22 July 2022). Photo: UN/Eskinder Debebe

You have been very consistent and persistent in calling for the bridging of the digital divide. What would the world look like if that divide were to be bridged and what can we do to achieve that?

There are several aspects to answering your question. The approaches that we take must be multidimensional. First, we must understand what constitutes access, and then look at quality.

During COVID-19 lockdowns, we have been doing more telecommuting and virtual meetings, which were never done before. So digital technologies have been essential for those who have access. Also, how can we do things that we did well before the pandemic using these technologies and still achieve results?

I think there needs to be a more coordinated and scaled-up global digital capacity building effort. And we need this, for sure, in developing countries. An enabling environment is required. We need sufficient resources. We need the infrastructure itself. We need to educate our people, the users as well. We need connectivity that is of quality. And it must be inclusive.

I should add that a lot of effort is already underway. For example, the UN Technology Bank for Least of Developed Countries is facilitating access to digital technologies for these countries, assisting them to transform their ways of doing business and to stand a better chance of achieving sustainable development.

Again, the Technology Facilitation Mechanism, hosted by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and supported by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is providing access to many technologies, including digital technologies.

How might digital technologies help African youth contribute more to economic development of the continent and what more can ECOSOC do to support them?

The youth of Africa are one of our comparative advantages. The innovators, the most creative, the energetic—those are African youth. The continent has a huge advantage with this demographic, and we can leverage this in science, technology and innovation.

But we must translate their energy into real dividends by investing in science and technology and innovation. Africa's working age population will grow by 450 million between 2015 to 2035. Of course, we also have a shift from manufacturing services to information-related services, which then gives us a good opportunity to leverage both technologies and the youth.

But for us to reap the full benefits of that, we need to build the capacities of the youth themselves, by equipping them with the knowledge and skills that they need.

In Africa, 57.8 per cent of innovative technologies, since the start of the pandemic, have been ICT driven, including chatbots in South Africa and the self-diagnostic tools in Angola.

Young people have been directly involved with other technological aspects of responding to COVID-19, including developing solar-powered automatic hand-washing tools and mobile applications that build on Africa's rapidly growing connectivity. So clearly, we get a huge benefit if we can tap from the energy, the vitality and the integration that comes with Africa’s youthful population.