BY GARGEE GHOSH, President, Global Policy & Advocacy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

One of the most obvious victims of the erosion of trust and spike in political polarization in recent years has been something that that many of us came to assume was a natural feature of the post-World War II geopolitical landscape: international cooperation.

International cooperation has been vital in almost every area of human endeavor – from delivering mail across borders to helping the Internet function to manning the space station. International cooperation in development over the past 60 years has profoundly improved the human condition to the benefit of all, particularly the most vulnerable.

Yet, as the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer has so effectively catalogued, disturbingly high numbers of people worry they are being lied to by leaders in their governments, business leaders and the media. Low- and middle-income countries felt like they were too often an afterthought during the roll-out of vaccines during the pandemic – not to mention the subsequent economic crisis and current global spike in food insecurity. Populations within high-income countries view each other warily across a political divide that can often feel like an abyss. Important multilateral institutions have become increasingly gridlocked as their member states wrangle amid escalating tensions.

So how can cooperation work at a time when distrust is the default? Well, history suggests that some of the most important steps forward in global cooperation came even at moments when trust was difficult to come by, and that these joint actions helped rebuild trust. And why does cooperation work even at moments when animosity runs high? In short, cooperation can work because it delivers results and is built around mutual self-interest.

Consider the case of smallpox. In 1966, smallpox was killing as many as two million people and infecting another 15 million annually. In a move that surprised even those who proposed it, the U.S., Soviet Union and the World Health Organization agreed to a joint effort to try and eradicate the disease. This was a remarkable bit of cooperation coming just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. (But as a reminder of the thick atmosphere of lingering distrust, the World Health Organization insisted that an American be put in charge of the eradication effort because they feared it would fail and didn’t want the UN to be blamed.)

By 1977, the last case of wild smallpox was recorded in Somalia and the world had succeeded in eradicating a disease for the first time. The fruits of this labor were enormous. Not only were millions and millions of lives saved, the Center for Global Development estimates that the U.S. saves the total of all its contributions to the smallpox eradication campaign every 26 days because it no longer needed to vaccinate Americans against the disease.

And why did it succeed? Well according to D.A. Henderson, the American physician who spearheaded the effort, it was certainly not because there was perfect alignment between governments and the United Nations. Instead, Henderson and most others who have looked at the effort credit the remarkable work of the some 150,000 frontline workers who administered vaccines and the group of international middle managers who worked with them. The esprit de corps and dedication of the people on the ground – who knew the ravages of smallpox all too well – was decisive.

Another example: Amid rising scientific concern about the impact of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer, UN Member states and concerned citizens gathered in Montreal in 1987. Their subsequent agreement, which aimed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of some 100 ozone-depleting chemicals, was a landmark in environmental cooperation, and the first treaty in United Nations history to be ratified by every single country on earth.

Cooperation was again a success with the agreement helping phase out 98 percent of global ozone-depleting chemicals. But before we mistake this as the product of some golden era of international trust, it is useful to remember that 1987 was the same year that President Reagan stood in Berlin and implored Soviet Premier Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

The agreement in Montreal did not happen overnight, and the imperative to act on chlorofluorocarbons had been most strikingly highlighted in groundbreaking research by Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland in 1974, a full decade earlier. Patient diplomacy by Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. and the United Nations Environmental Program to mount a campaign to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals around the globe. Accounts of the successful diplomatic process give particular credit to the compelling scientific evidence, the emergence of commercial alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons, strong leadership by the U.S., and the steady engagement of civil society in pushing for change.

So what would cooperation look like in today’s divided environment? As in the past, focusing on steps that would benefit the world’s most vulnerable is an excellent place to start. Three steps in particular stand out:

Feed the hungry

Acute food insecurity shot up around the world by nearly 25 percent last year – an increase of nearly 40 million people over the already record high of 2020. This is especially dangerous for people in poor countries in the Global South, where families sometimes spend upwards of 50 percent of their income on food. There is no more painful reminder of our collective shortcomings than a hungry child. We need to ensure that nutritionally vulnerable women and children have access to the nutrients they need and get the special nutritional products that are incredibly effective at treating and preventing the severe form of malnutrition known as “wasting” to the people who need it the most. We also need to address the immediate need for affordable fertilizer for small-scale farmers in Africa, or else we will see incomes and harvest plunge and malnutrition spike even further. We also need to boost investment in long-term agricultural research knowing that if we don’t get ahead of the impact of climate change, we will be stuck in repeated cycles of crisis.

Learn from the pandemic

While the response to COVID-19 revealed remarkable progress in some areas, particularly in the speed with which a vaccine was developed, it also starkly underscored how unprepared the world was for such a major health crisis with millions of lives lost and the global economy contracting by over 4 percent and more than $8.5 trillion in economic output and several years of development progress lost.

Now is the time, while the lessons are still fresh, to make the investments needed to avoid the next global health crisis. First and foremost, we need to strengthen health systems and invest in primary health care in the Global South so that these systems are better prepared to tackle not only pandemics but the numerous infectious diseases that remain a scourge for far too many families. In concert with this, we need to catalyze a Global Health Emergency Corps of experienced, integrated, and expert response teams – a corps of global first responders for pandemics as it were – able to mobilize and contain outbreaks before they become a global threat. Such preventive, forward-thinking action would not be free, but it would cost a fraction of what has been spent on dealing with this pandemic – let alone the next one.

Show them the money

At a time when there are unprecedented demands on traditional development assistance, we need to pursue common sense reforms to international financial institutions that will free up additional resources, drive accelerated growth, address climate change and preserve vital investments in healthier and more prosperous populations. The G20, among others, building upon widespread calls for action from the Global South, is now pushing for ways to expand financing for the developing world.

This includes expanding lending to low- and middle-income countries, more flexibly reprogramming money made available during the pandemic, protecting and expanding traditional grants for development and addressing the growing debt crisis faced by many of these same low- and middle-income countries. These fundamental reforms of international finance will never elicit the same emotional response as a hungry child, but they have the potential to fundamentally bend the arc of history over time.

In this era of mistrust, the surest way back to common ground, as the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer rightly argues, is to demonstrate tangible progress and show that we can work together for the common good. While I may be biased, doing so to help the world’s most vulnerable realize a brighter future seems like a great place to start.