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The United Nations’ most important assignment yet

By Achim Steiner

Humans have always shaped the world – that much is a given. Yet the world is at breaking point. Humans have pushed one million plant and animal species to the brink of extinction. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity are rapidly warming the planet, causing cities to gradually sink and 20 million people to lose their homes every year. We inhabit a world of shocking inequalities and, with this pandemic, they stand in plain sight. Eight out of every ten people who will become poor by the end of this decade as a result of Covid-19 will live in countries that are already poor or struggling. The Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity starkly shows that in high-income countries: 1 in 2 people, have been vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine. In low-income countries, that figure is just 1 in 12. Yet as the British documentary-maker Adam Curtis argues in his polemic Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the hidden truth is that the world we have made could just as easily be made differently. The United Nations is at the very centre of efforts to help countries to build forward better from Covid-19 – guided by a clear vision inviting everyone to get on board.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the UN was tasked with imagining and delivering a brand-new global era. The UN has helped to halt conflict, prevent war, and offer people a literal lifeline through its development work. With Covid-19, we face another inflection point. To define the next era, it starts by hearing what people want their future to look like, and the UN is listening. Since last year, over one million people have engaged in the UN’s The Future We Want conversation – improved access to basic services like healthcare, safe water and sanitation, and education stand out as priorities. And in the largest-ever global survey of its kind, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that 64 per cent of people believe climate change is an “emergency” and must be addressed urgently, and just 10 per cent believe world leaders are doing enough. To address such critical areas, we have a plan with defined targets in the Sustainable Development Goals.   

Next, it takes a willingness to put big ideas into action. Ideas around clean renewable energy will literally turn on the lights in schools across sub-Saharan Africa – half of which are in the dark; ideas to ensure access to affordable broadband for the 2.9 billion people still offline will spur innovation and economic growth. And rich countries need the courage to extend debt relief and finance to developing countries so that they can help to power a global green recovery that will cut carbon emissions and limit global warming to 1.5ºC.  Indeed, it is astonishing to consider that less than 1 per cent of debt service in 2021 would cover the cost of one billion vaccine doses under the Covax initiative. At the same time, and according to the International Monetary Fund, controlling the pandemic earlier would yield an astonishing $9trn of potential global economic gains by 2025.

The UN is putting this vision into practice. Look, for instance to the Climate Promise being implemented in 120 countries – the world’s largest offer of support for the enhancement of countries’ climate pledges. The aim is to help insert the “DNA” of a green, inclusive economy into all Covid-19 recovery and stimulus measures. From Serbia to Tunisia to Indonesia, countries are starting to abandon fossil fuels and embrace clean, renewable technologies that will help to create up to 30 million new green jobs.

Since March 2020, we have seen how development will be driven in the future from the bottom rather than the top. From the roll-out of robots in Covid-19 treatment centres in Rwanda and Kenya, to the rapid 3D-printing of personal protective equipment, the UN is now at the very centre of efforts to sustain this once-in-a-generation local innovation surge.

It is a future where human development is soaring as extreme poverty is ended and we have closed the gap on stubborn inequalities.

In a world weary of total war and unprecedented destruction in the 1940s, the UN fulfilled what it was originally designed to do: to bring nations together to lay out a clear picture of the future, driven by the support of key partners like the UK. Just like Covid-19, the problems and opportunities that lie ahead will pay no heed to nation states nor borders. As the UN embarks on its most important assignment yet – to build a future around a fair, green economy – important partners like the UK need to be fully on board. We cannot fail.

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Achim Steiner is the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme

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