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Author: Eóin O’Keeffe



This is a time of extraordinary stress for the United Nations and the countries of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic, an emerging recession and potential economic crisis, and an increasingly polarised geopolitical landscape pose enormous challenges for the UN and for the development sector. Mr Steiner suggests that the development sector should no longer focus on development aid, but on the development cooperation between nations and multilateral organisations and on the choices they can make together. However, a new question has emerged as a result of these enormous challenges, ‘what choices are left for countries and for the development sector?’.

Mr Steiner echoed the words of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, that countries around the world are facing different impacts of COVID-19 and are addressing them at different paces. The situation is getting worse and an end to the pandemic is not close, neither from a health nor a socioeconomic perspective.

Some countries are facing health crises, however others are facing socioeconomic crises as they try to prevent health crises. Lockdowns in developing economies and the socioeconomic implications have, in some scenarios, overtaken the health impacts. The lockdown measures that governments have imposed to protect societies against COVID-19 are fundamentally altering people’s socioeconomic wellbeing. This is an incredibly complex situation for governments, societies and multilateral organisations to tackle, which is further intensified as some seek to politicise key public health measures.


United Nations and an Emerging Development Crisis

The Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly have traditionally been forums where people can come together to create global responses, global solidarity and global capacity to face crises. Mr Steiner suggested that Ireland’s membership of UN Security Council is coming at an ideal moment.

Forums such as the Security Council are essential to create a common assessment of what must be done to tackle COVID-19 and to create consensus despite political differences of its members. Ireland’s strong commitment to humanitarianism and development will be essential in constructing a clear COVID-19 response, which places those furthest behind at the centre.

As countries have had to focus inwards and face the domestic reality of COVID-19, the UN has stepped up its international efforts to protect the interests and needs of those most at risk. However, for the first time since the inception of the Human Development Index, the world is facing a decline in human development:

  • Over 100 million people face a decline into poverty as a result of COVID-19.
  • Up to 250 million people could suffer from extreme hunger and food stress.
  • As economies shut down, hundreds of millions face economic hardship as the informal sector is hit particularly hard. In some countries, up to 80% of all employment is in the informal sector.
  • Middle income economies which focus on tourism, such as some Small Island Developing States, are facing a devastating recession.
  • 2 billion children are not able to attend school and even if schools reopen, many will never return.

These new realities are forcing nations and the international community to make new development choices and refocus capacities in order to remain capable of continuing their support.

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said that we cannot go back to the normal of yesterday. In his Mandela lecture of 18 July 2020 (Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era), he highlighted the inequalities in societies all over the world which go beyond the normal measures of GDP, employment and hunger, and have serious political consequences. He outlined how economic inequalities have resulted in people disengaging from the political process and protesting against their governments. Mr Steiner believes that this is part of the development crises which is emerging around the world.

The Sahel region faces a huge range of issues and if the international development community cannot continue to support this area and those most vulnerable, there is likely to be an increase in extremism and radicalisation. This is one clear example of how issues such as governance and the rule of law are under threat as people turn their backs on the societies which have treated them so poorly. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting and exposing many of the underlying inequalities and frailties around the world.


Long Term Response to Structural Challenges Required

The global economy is unlikely to recovery quickly. The need for macroeconomic stability is essential for countries to base their responses on. Credit lines which the IMF have opened up are vital but will increase national debt. Similarly, the World Bank has increased its lending capacity which allows countries more space to plan their responses. But these are both short term measures. The UN Secretary General said that the structural challenges around debt must be addressed as many countries will face debt crises in the immediate future. Mr Steiner added that this should focus both on national debt, but also on corporate debt which is at a much higher level than in 2009.

Initially, the UNDP focused on enabling countries to maintain their operational capacities and, alongside many of the leading NGOs, provided emergency supplies to the most vulnerable communities. The UNDP has since established itself as the socioeconomic lead in the UN and works with 160 nations to help develop their socioeconomic strategies. This involves making very difficult choices and countries must make sure that the investments and mitigation strategies they decide on are investments into a future development strategy towards recovery. The UNDP offers its expertise and guidance to countries as they face these difficult choices that have huge implications for their citizens.

Working alongside these countries, the UNDP has identified four key areas for recovery

  • Governance and Agency – the role of government and its ability to meet and pass legislation is essential. This can be as simple as providing a digital platform or the computers for them to meet digitally.
  • Social Protection – it is very important to identify the most vulnerable and create gender specific and child specific responses.
  • Green Economy – governments must find out how to create more resilience and reduce risk in societies. Programmes on renewable energy and off-grid energy could give a major boost to the African continent.
  • Digital Disruption Innovation – 50% of the world’s population does not have broadband or access to the internet. Generational projects such as providing broadband to all could be transformative for people’s lives, especially in education.


The UN Secretary General is extremely worried about the geopolitical situation and the implications of a financial crisis. However, Ireland could play a leading role as a member of the UN Security Council through its membership of the EU and with its longstanding commitment to development and humanitarian principles. Voices with expertise, rationality and independence can help to build cooperation which is essential for the UN and for states around the world to battle against this pandemic and clear a path for a better future.