DUBAI: This year marks the 75th anniversary year of the United Nations. The world has seen massive changes since the League of Nations ceased operations in 1946, just 26 years after coming into existence, but its aims of promoting peace and well-being continue to live on in the work of the UN.
The UN’s 75th anniversary, however, has turned out to be a year of great disruption for the world, compounded by a health crisis with severe economic and social consequences. The jury is out on whether humanity will emerge stronger and better equipped to work together, or if distrust and isolation will increase.
In January the UN said 2020 must be a year of dialogue, when the world came together to discuss its priorities as a human family and how it can build a better future for all. Two months later, when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reached pandemic proportions, the UN urged rival nations and groups to seek peace and reconciliation and to focus instead on defeating the common enemy.
The first glimmer of an end to the pandemic in the form of successful vaccine candidates coincides with a growing focus on the ways and means to build back better. “We need solidarity and cooperation. And we need concrete action now — especially for the most vulnerable,” Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said in remarks ahead of the Riyadh-hosted virtual G20 Summit, which concluded on Sunday.
Warning that the developing world is on the “precipice of financial ruin and escalating poverty, hunger and untold suffering,” he said: “We cannot let the COVID pandemic lead to a debt pandemic.”
COVID-19 has infected more than 59 million people worldwide and killed almost 1.4 million since it first emerged in China at the end of 2019. The US has seen the biggest and deadliest outbreak by far, but poorer countries have suffered to a greater extent from the economic consequences of lockdowns and disruption to trade and travel.
Like elsewhere in the world, across the Arab region, jobs have been cut, businesses have been forced to close and young people deprived of an education. Although the pandemic has accelerated digital adoption as jobs and schooling have moved online, another yawning gap between wealthy and developing nations has been exposed — digital connectivity.
The UN wants robotics, artificial intelligence and remote platforms to help bridge this divide. A UNICEF project called Giga aims to have every school connected to the internet by 2030. “We think we can get it done and the reason is technology,” Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, told the Abu Dhabi-hosted virtual World Government Summit last month.
“We’ve got a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine education and what it could look like. As (we) gather bids so that countries around the world can have access to vaccines, we think we can do the same for connectivity,” she said. “We need private companies, governments and commitment. Global connectivity is a global public good and now’s the time to deliver it to our children.”
Working alongside the OECD and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, Saudi Arabia hopes to lead by example in the wider region. It has made bridging the digital divide a key priority of its Vision 2030 reform strategy. In the past three years alone, the Kingdom’s fiberoptic network has been extended to 3.5 million homes, ranking it fourth globally in terms of 5G connectivity.
The same advanced technology has great potential as an equalizer that can prevent marginalized groups slipping through the cracks and prepare young people for the new industries of the future.
“The poorest populations in the poorest countries, often girls or young people with disabilities, often get left behind,” Fore told the World Government Summit. “They want a modern education so governments should think about modernizing their curriculums to give them the skills they’ll need for the future.
“We believe that eight out of 10 young people in low and middle-income countries are going to need to make their own jobs, so they need to learn everything — how to put up solar panels, engineers, teachers, doctors, and nurses — to be able to have a livelihood.”
The World Government Summit also heard appeals for greater youth empowerment and gender equality. Before the pandemic began, it was estimated that 1.8 billion young people would enter the labor market in the next decade, of whom just 400 million would find a job.
“To build back better, we cannot leave the voices of women and youth behind,” Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, the current president of the UN General Assembly, said. “We need to craft a world that is more sustainable and more resilient, free from inequalities and injustice.”
In her opinion, with women comprising half the world’s population, their absence in decision-making processes and agreements harms the overall effort to secure peace, human rights and sustainable development.
“Gender equality is a strong predictor of a state’s peacefulness and development,” Espinosa Garces said. “We have proven that where women are more empowered, a state is less likely to experience civil conflict or go to war. It is clear that women are agents of transformation, of building back better a world for all.”
Incidentally, countries in the Arab region have made significant strides on this issue in recent years, with Saudi Arabia’s economy making the most progress globally towards gender equality since 2017, according to a recent World Bank report.
“When you look at COVID-19, 70 percent of the front-liners fighting this pandemic are women,” Ohood Al-Roumi, the UAE minister of state for government development and the future, said at the World Government Summit.
“Countries who have more women in government senior leadership positions had better responses to the pandemic overall. Yet women are about 39 percent of the global workforce in the world and they occupy only 28 percent of managerial positions.”
Today, half the UAE’s Parliament is made up of women, compared to the global average of 25 percent. Women constitute two-thirds of university graduates and government employees, and one third of its cabinet ministers are women in senior posts.
“More needs to be done around the world to enable and support more women to take more public leadership positions,” said Al-Roumi. “To create a better world, the future is female.”
On the bright side, Guterres said ahead of the G20 Summit that a global coalition for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is taking shape, amid concerns over the continued rise of greenhouse gas emissions at a rate of 1.5 percent annually.
He called on G20 countries to put a price on carbon, end fossil fuel subsidies, stop construction of new coal power plants, ensure mandatory financial reporting on exposure to climate risks and integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions.
In her remarks at the World Government Summit, Espinosa Garces too said the pandemic had presented opportunities to make the global economy “greener.”
“We can and must do more,” she said. “Building back better has to mean decarbonizing our economy, to rethink our production and consumption patterns. The recovery from COVID-19 shouldn’t just encompass ‘green’ jobs and recovery plans but also a commitment to building stronger, rejuvenated global institutions.”