The Developing World Expects Trust That Is Verified
BY VERA SONGWE, Co-Chair of High Level Panel on Climate Finance
The present period of polycrisis has provided multiple tests for the concept of global trust. To many in the developing world, the result has been damaging trust in ways that require urgent repair, if the multilateral system is to rise to the even bigger challenges ahead.
In the Bible, Thomas, one of Jesus’s closest disciples, refused to believe reports of the resurrection until he had, with his own eyes and hands, seen and touched Jesus’s scars. Thomas’s insistence underscores an aspect of trust that’s as old as time: Belief is stronger and confidence is higher when trust can be verified. Unfortunately, what African and other developing countries experienced in the past few years has shaken, not verified, our already fragile faith in the implicit moral principles of trust and co-responsibility that are supposed to govern relations between richer and poorer nations.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought both a health crisis and an economic crisis, during which richer countries made it clear where their real priorities lay. Consider how industrialized country leaders behaved when the most pressing question was, “Who should we give our masks to, to prevent the virus propagating and killing more people?” It is fair to say that Africa was not first on their list. Rich countries met their own needs first.
Then, as the world waited for vaccines to tackle the pandemic, the consensus expressed by global leaders was that the new vaccines would be made available equitably to those globally who needed them most urgently – like health workers and the elderly. This was morally the right thing to do. However, the reality proved very different, as wealthy countries again bowed to short-term domestic political pressures. For Africa, in particular, the lack of access to vaccines and the hoarding of them by many partner countries was a verifiable lack of respect for a mutual commitment that severely weakened trust in the system.
The shutdowns that swept the world as governments fought COVID-19 severely damaged developing economies around the world, including plunging Africa into its first continental recession in over a quarter of a century. Globally, reversing years of gradual progress, over 100 million people fell into poverty. In industrialized countries, governments were able to cushion the economic blow by providing various forms of financial support and stimulus amounting to over $20 trillion. Few developing countries had the financial resources to do the same for their economies. This was a moment for the world’s richer countries to step up, but the collective response was so inadequate, providing further verification that the global system could not be trusted.
First, it took over a year for the multilateral institutions at the heart of the global financial architecture to acknowledge there was a need to act to support the developing world, even as the G7 countries injected trillions of dollars into their economies. The eventual response exposed serious design flaws in this global architecture, as the tool of choice – the use of countries’ special drawing rights at the International Monetary Fund – was not fit for purpose. From over $650 billion of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) issued, Africa got only $33.7 billion, a tiny fraction of what was needed. Rather than strengthen trust by acting co-responsibly, the system reflected the power imbalance in place since its creation more than 70 years ago when developing countries had no meaningful voice. As a result, African and other emerging economies remained in crisis while the excessively stimulated economies of the developed world overheated.
Our trust in global cooperation further deteriorated in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which, on top of the death and other misery inflicted on the country and a refugee crisis on its borders, brought both a food crisis in developing countries and an abrupt switch in rich country energy priorities back to coal and other carbon fuels. The latter implication further undermined trust in a climate change-fighting COP process that asks a lot from Africa and the rest of the emerging world (including ending funding to gas projects which could substantially improve livelihoods and accelerate the total switch to renewables by African countries).
Unsurprisingly, the trust needed to achieve strong, agreed outcomes at the recent COP27 in Egypt proved lacking – another potentially trust-verifying event that achieved the opposite. Yes, delegates worked past the scheduled closing to agree, finally, to the long-promised, much-delayed $100 billion fund to pay for “loss and damage” to vulnerable countries hit by climate disasters (though key details remain vague). Yet as the recent report of the independent high-level expert group on climate finance that I co-chaired with Lord Nicholas Stern makes clear, what was really needed is an ambitious set of reforms and commitments that can deliver $1 trillion a year of external climate- transition investment in developing and emerging economies (not including China) by 2030. This, I should add, needs to be part of a broader overhaul of the global financial architecture, so there is no repeat of the unjust SDR outcome in response to COVID-19.
Rich countries now need to rebuild trust by providing the developing world with some significant verifiable evidence of their commitment to co-responsibility. At its core, co-responsibility is about the need for the global partnership of trust to be mutual. Beyond fighting climate change, it holds the key to achieving ambitious goals for humanity, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without a shared commitment to co-responsible behavior in global governance, stabilizing our climate and achieving the SDGs will remain wishful thinking. Co-responsibility requires conviction from all sides that acting in the collective interest will yield a superior outcome in the long run. Right now, when it comes to reviving trust that this conviction still exists among decision makers in the world’s richest countries, actions will speak far louder than words.
At the same time, co-responsibility also means that African countries must work to build the elements needed to place them on a level playing field with their partner institutions and countries. Ultimately, Africa took charge of its own vaccine provision by creating the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust. Hopefully, the recent launch of the Liquidity and Sustainability Facility by African governments and the private sector will have a similar effect. At a time when the world is faced with multiple crises, trust is an essential element for addressing the challenges. Certainly, rebuilding and restoring trust will require time and it will also need verifiable actions by both parties. I am confident we have, or can create, the tools and the opportunities to use them. But do we have the will?