More from UNDESA Vol 24, No. 10 - October 2020

A wake-up call for a more united world

By Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the world, but it has not broken us. Over a million people have died worldwide, and the death toll continues to rise. We must confront the onslaught of the pandemic with fortitude, resolve and unity, not with fear, division and despondence. The history of humanity is the history of triumph against all odds. This time will be no different.

The global economy is in crisis, with the world output projected to shrink by nearly $5 trillion this year. Millions of jobs have already been lost, many of which will never come back. Yet we are seeing slivers of hope. The economies of the United States, China and Germany are showing signs of resilience and recovery. Consumer confidence is rising, and retail spending is on the rebound. Defying market expectations, the Chinese economy grew by 3.2 per cent during the second quarter of 2020.

However, the outlook for the rest of the world is less promising. Poverty is rising, not only in the developing world but also in the most advanced economies. This will inevitably lead to higher levels of inequality, with serious consequences for social cohesion, peace and stability.

The glimmers of hope notwithstanding, we must guard against complacency.  Let us not focus too narrowly on the growth numbers or the shape of the recovery this year. Economic growth this year matters, but what matters more is how it will affect growth during the next five or 10 years.

The economic response and the choices we are making now will shape the path of the world economy for years to come. There is little room for mistakes. We must resist the temptation of seeing recovery as a zero-sum game among countries, with a few winning the race while others fall behind. We are all in this together, and we must recover together.

The United Nations is commemorating its 75th anniversary. As the community of nations, the UN has prevented another great war, and delivered unprecedented prosperity over the past decades.  But our cherished goal of an inclusive, equitable and sustainable world is still a long way off. We are off track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Thus, our vulnerability to the pandemic must serve as a wake-up call for a more united world. We must take this opportunity to recover better, leaving no country and community behind.

There are four objectives that we must prioritize now.

First, as we strive to save lives, we must also save livelihoods. When confronted with difficult trade-offs, we must keep in mind that loss of jobs will exacerbate hunger, poverty and inequality. We must deploy resources carefully – not only to bring back jobs that have been lost – but also to fill the job deficits that persisted before the pandemic.

Second, boosting investments – building and rebuilding physical infrastructures – must remain a critical priority for creating jobs and greening our economies. This is our path to a more interconnected, interdependent and climate-resilient future.

Third, we must prioritize improving our human capital. There is a pressing need for augmenting investments in health, education, skills and technical know-how, to ensure the livelihoods of future generations. This will also require us to rethink, pace and sequence technological progress to prevent a recovery that is jobless.

Finally, it is the time for us to put our commitment to universal social protection into action. The pandemic has shown us that we are as strong as our weakest link. For far too long, social protection has been a footnote in mainstream economic policies that prioritized efficiency and profit, over the well-being of people. The current crises should allow us to change course in the direction of universal social protection.

In order to realize these objectives, we must deploy all tools at our disposal.  We must ensure that trade – a critical tool of development and well-being – does not become collateral damage of the pandemic. Indeed, international trade is not just the glue that binds nations together. It is also the wellspring of jobs, investment, technology transfers and innovation.

The gains from trade enabled the governments in Europe, North America and East Asia to create more inclusive and prosperous societies by extending safety nets to those who had not benefitted in the past. The developing countries must have their opportunity, too.

We must not retrench from trade or follow our worst instincts of protectionism and isolationism.  In our darkest hours, we must strengthen multilateralism and global dialogues to rekindle the spirit of mutual trust, unity, partnership and interdependence. We must collectively safeguard and promote international trade to boost investment, protect livelihoods, promote well-being.

This is the only way for us to recover better and rise stronger.

SDG 16 in numbers

Conflict, insecurity, weak institutions and limited access to justice remain threats to sustainable development. In 2019, the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 79.5 million, the highest level recorded since these statistics have been systematically collected.

One in four children continues to be deprived of legal identity through lack of birth registration, often limiting their ability to exercise rights in other areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to amplify and exploit fragilities across the globe. In March 2020, the Secretary-General launched an appeal for an immediate global ceasefire to aid in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and open channels for diplomacy, in particular for those most vulnerable to COVID-19. The measure is being met with support, but implementation challenges still exist.

Access more data and information on the indicators for SDG 16 in the SDG Progress Report 2020.

COVID-19 legacy: a high-debt, low-growth trap

Governments around the world have taken extraordinary steps to halt the spread of COVID-19 and limit the economic and social fallout from the crisis. While their interventions may have reduced the immediate economic damage, they have left governments with record debt burdens and major fiscal challenges.

The situation is especially precarious for many developing countries where the pandemic has created a perfect storm for public finances at a time when fiscal positions were already strained. In many cases, the COVID-19 crisis constitutes the third major shock to public finances in just over 10 years. Fiscal balances deteriorated sharply in the wake of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, during the 2014-16 commodity price downturn, and now again in 2020.

As a result, public debt levels have drastically increased. At 58 per cent, the median government-debt-to-GDP ratio of developing countries is almost twice as high as in 2007 and at the highest level since the multilateral debt relief programs of the early 2000s.

With fiscal vulnerabilities building for over a decade, it comes as little surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis are pushing more and more countries to the brink of default. In June, 36 low-income countries were either already in debt distress or were at high of it. At the same time, sovereign debt downgrades by major credit rating agencies have soared.

Even if the worst-case scenario of widespread debt distress and disorderly defaults does not materialize, many developing countries could become trapped in a vicious cycle of high debt and low growth. Persistent fiscal consolidation pressures could trigger large cuts to public investment and social spending, jeopardizing countries’ prospects of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

This vicious cycle can only be broken if countries manage to return to a more robust and sustained economic growth. Premature moves to fiscal austerity would further weaken the economies and hinder repayment capacity. Current initiatives by the international community are a first step, but bolder, more comprehensive and more forward-looking measures are needed to avoid protracted fiscal paralysis.

Learn more from the World Economic Situation and Prospects Monthly Briefing for October.

Tracking data on gender equality

What are the latest data on women and what do they tell us about the state of gender equality in the world? In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing+25), UN DESA’s Statistics Division will hold the technical launch of the Secretary-General’s flagship report “The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics (WW2020)” on 20 October 2020 at the third Virtual United Nations World Data Forum.

In line with the previous editions of The World’s Women series produced at five-year intervals, WW2020 presents the latest assessment of progress towards gender equality and empowerment of women and girls since 1995, analyzing women’s situation compared to men’s worldwide.

“The report is produced with innovation at its core,” said Francesca Grum, Chief of Social and Gender Statistics in the Statistics Division, who has overseen the production of WW2020. “We wanted to improve the user experience by moving away from a physical publication to an online platform. This will provide easy navigation and search features across gender stories and related data to help users explore the report’s content from different perspectives, including by major thematic areas and special geographic regions.”

Reaching out to the broader public, WW2020 is a collection of around 100 brief stories that will provide easy-to-read, non-technical narratives with the latest statistics on critical gender issues grouped under the following themes: population and families, health, education, economic empowerment and asset ownership, power and decision-making and violence against women and the girl child. Additionally, for the first time, users will be able to unpack and query the report’s content by special focus areas intersecting with gender, including: Covid-19, ethnicity, persons with disabilities, youth, older persons, income, indigenous peoples, urban/rural areas.

The report is the outcome of unprecedented collective efforts, involving a multitude of contributors that have collaborated with the Statistics Division over the past year, including more than 30 national statistical offices, regional commissions and members of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Gender Statistics. The collaboration has enabled WW2020 to zoom into gender data also at the national and sub-national levels, unlocking additional spatial insights for selected countries.

The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics (WW2020) will become available on the website of UN DESA’s Statistics Division.

Photo: UN Women Moldova/Diana Savina


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