At the High-Level Event on Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond- as delivered
New York, 29 September 2020
Zeinab, thank you.
Excellencies, it has been a year of unpleasant surprises.
The virus itself, of course, caught us by surprise.
Many have been surprised by the severity of the global recession it has caused.
But we have not been surprised that that recession has hit hardest in the 50 or so countries where a hundred million people already only survive because of the help they get from humanitarian agencies like those I coordinate.
Some, though, have been surprised by the speed with which the damage has been done.
As David Malpass just said, for the first time since the 1990s, extreme poverty is going to increase. Life expectancy will fall. The annual death toll from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria is set to double. The number of people facing starvation may also double.
The carnage is concentrated in the most vulnerable countries.
As Bill and Melinda Gates’ new Goalkeepers report put it, the last 25 weeks threatens to unravel 25 years of development progress.
It’s worth remembering what many poor countries were like 25 years ago. I was working in a country then where a quarter of children never saw their fifth birthday, most never went to school and one woman in 18 died in childbirth. Do we really want all that back?
All the more surprising, then, that while the better off countries have rightly thrown out the rule book to pump liquidity and fiscal support into their own economies to protect their own citizens, they have done so little to protect the poorest countries – who don’t have the capacity, resources or access to markets to do the same thing.
That is surprising first since everyone knows what ought to be done. Many of the necessary actions, especially in mobilising the international financial institutions to help the most vulnerable countries, were taken as recently as the 2008-09 financial crisis.
It is surprising second because much of what needs to happen would cost better off countries very little in fiscal terms, especially in the short term.
And it is surprising third because better off countries failing to take action now is not merely a failure of generosity or empathy. It is an act of self-harm. Like the virus, the problems that will be spawned by the huge economic contraction we are seeing will come back to bite everyone. All round the world.
All the poverty, hunger, sickness and suffering will fuel grievances and despair. And in their wake will come conflict, instability, migration and refugee flows, all giving succour to extremist groups and terrorists.
The consequences will reach far and last long.
And no-one will be able to say they were surprised by that.
So let’s surprise ourselves in a positive direction.
Let’s take the obvious, cheap, self-interested and generous measures to mitigate all this now.
Protect aid budgets, extend and expand debt relief as Kristalina has said, beyond the debt service suspension initiative, issue SDRs and devote them to the poorest countries, and use the balance sheets of the shared financial institutions more energetically to protect the most vulnerable.
Thank you very much.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.