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COVID-19: Act now or risk ‘unimaginable devastation’ globally

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Unless countries across the world act together now, the COVID-19 pandemic will cause “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Thursday at a virtual high-level meeting on financing for development.

 Painting a picture of 60 million pushed into extreme poverty; famine of “historic proportions”; some 1.6 billion people left without livelihoods; and a loss of $8.5 trillion in global output – the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s – he called for a response with “unity and solidarity”.

“We are asking for immediate, collective action in six critically important areas”, Mr. Guterres said at the online event to leverage more funds for sustainable development.

Beginning with the global liquidity crisis, he said that this was where the health and economic crises meet; “a dangerous nexus that could prolong and deepen both”, calling for extending Special Drawing Rights to supplement public spending reserves.

Noting that the economic fallout from the pandemic threatens a wave of defaults in developing countries, stymieing the effort to reach the 2030 SDGs, the UN chief’s second call was for “durable solutions on debt, to create space for investments in recovery and the Sustainable Development Goals”.

Next, he urged private creditors holding a growing share of developing countries’ sovereign debt to find incentives to encourage more creditors to provide debt relief.

Mr. Guterres then drew attention to external funding, saying that aligning incentives in global financial systems with the SDGs would boost confidence “to relaunch investment in sustainable development”.

Turning to illicit financial flow, such as tax evasion and money-laundering, which deprive developing countries of hundreds of billions of dollars annually, he said that “we must plug the leaks” by revising national systems and international frameworks.

The UN chief’s final point was the overarching need to “recover better” from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stay the development course

COVID-19 has exposed and is exacerbating deep inequalities and injustices that need to be tackled, including for women, who, with typically fewer savings and lower incomes, experience economic impacts worse than men.

“All our efforts must go towards building sustainable and resilient pathways that enable us not only to beat COVID-19, but to tackle the climate crisis, reduce inequality and eradicate poverty and hunger”, underscored the UN chief.

He upheld that we must face these challenging and the corresponding dangers, with “all urgency, seriousness and responsibility”.

“Getting through COVID-19 and recovering better will cost money. But the alternative will cost far more”, concluded the Secretary-General. “This is a global crisis, and it’s up to all of us to solve it”.

New financial architecture

Even before COVID-19, financial constraints posed challenges for developing countries to meet the SDGs. Today, economic and financial shocks triggered by the coronavirus have left many struggling to respond to the pandemic and its social and economic consequences.

President of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, maintained that to achieve the SDGs by 2030, “we have to rethink our economic systems”, requiring “leadership, political will and collaborative efforts among a wide variety of actors to safeguard the future for generations to come”.

He highlighted the need to mobilize public, private and external financial resources, for both rapid recovery and for longer-term progress in achieving the 2030 development agenda.

Noting that many developing countries are financially ill-equipped to halt the spread of COVID-19 as well as its social and economic consequences, the Assembly president maintained that “concrete proposals and timely action” were needed to prevent them from “sliding into disorderly defaults”.

“Now is the time to revise the international financial architecture”, he said, arguing that plans must “not only address current liquidity shortages, but also provide durable solutions that create vital fiscal space for investments in sustainable development for countries in need”.

Mr. Muhammad-Bande stressed that COVID -19 and its related economic and social fall-out cannot be addressed in a vacuum, but instead integrated into broader discussions on financing for sustainable development.“The United Nations provides us with a forum to convene all actors and specialised policy communities to address these challenges”, he reminded the meeting.

Our interconnected world

Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, called the pandemic “a stark reminder” of how interconnected our world has become, spelling out that “to keep our citizens safe and healthy, we must defeat COVID-19 wherever it is found”.

This requires a global, coordinated plan that will also facilitate global and domestic economies to bounce back.

Jobs and businesses in every country depend on “the health and stability of economies elsewhere” – all of which is hinged on the success of the global economy in weathering this storm, said the co-convener of the high-level summit.

“COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge for our modern world, but it’s also a unique opportunity to build a better future, to create a safe and prosperous world”, he added.

‘Wake-up call’

Sharing the gavel, Andrew Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica, called the pandemic “a wake-up call” for the international community to reinvigorate a comprehensive system of global economic governance “that can cope with global disruptions while promoting inclusive development”.

He said a big challenge for the international financial system, was to channel public and private credit flows, into productive, inclusive developmental capital flows:

“The work streams on global liquidity and financial stability as well as debt vulnerability, should inform our response to the financial dimensions of this crisis”, endorsed the Jamaican Prime Minister.

Global response actions

•    Safeguard development gains by expanding liquidity in the global economy and maintaining financial stability.  
•    Save lives and livelihoods of people worldwide by addressing debt vulnerabilities for developing countries.  
•    Create a space for private sector creditors to engage in timely solutions.
•    Enhance external finance for inclusive growth and job creation.
•    Prevent illicit financial flows by expanding fiscal space and fostering domestic resource mobilization.
•    Align recovery policies with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure a sustainable and inclusive recovery.

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Finance

Digitalization crucial to SIDs’ COVID-19 recovery, long-term development

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The upscaling of digital technologies presents a host of opportunities for small island developing states (SIDS) to diversify their economies, boost manufacturing, gain greater access to global value chains, and improve disaster preparedness. However, significant obstacles remain, including inadequate digital infrastructure, insufficient training opportunities for women and young people, a growing digital divide, and a lack of data and policy knowledge. That’s according to an expert panel convened for the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit’s Digital Series on the topic: “How Information and Communication Technologies can foster inclusive and sustainable industrial development in Small Island Developing States”.

Ralf Bredel, Chief of the Asia-Pacific Regional Programme at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), said that SIDS share common challenges such as limited resource bases, long distances to primary markets, and vulnerability to climate change.

“ICT has the potential to help SIDS in overcoming some of the challenges derived from the isolation and remoteness. It can support trade in economic diversification. This is even more true under the current circumstances, with COVID-19 and the restrictions on people’s movements and the heavy blow to SIDS’ economies in relation to their continued reliance on tourism,” said Bredel.

Vanessa Gray, Head of the Division for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Emergency Telecommunications at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), added, “We know that small islands are naturally prone to disasters caused by earthquakes and severe weather events and are being affected by climate change, resulting in increased tropical cyclones, hurricanes, flood and landslides, to name a few. Connectivity can help address these events by providing remote communities with access to early warning systems, real-time weather information, remote sensing and geographic information systems.”

Gary Jackson, Executive Director of the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE), said that countries in the region are “pushing the envelope” towards energy efficiency.

“We have to recognize that islands don’t have what we call a supergrid, don’t have a lot of interconnections that would give us reliability and availability and that’s what people really want,” said Jackson. “So one of the things we have to consider is how we move towards decentralization, decarbonization and some of the things that we need to do to ensure that reliability, availability and affordability are consistent with what people require.”

Michelle Marius, Publisher of the ICT Pulse blog highlighted a continuing gender gap concerning digital employment. “We do have so many girls and women in the workforce. Many of them, sometimes even in management positions in reputable organisations, but somehow we still have not been able to crack that barrier between women in tech and digital entrepreneurship by women” she noted.

Amjad Umar, Director and Professor of ISEM (Information Systems Engineering and Management) programme at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, said, “We know that, in many cases, SIDS do not have 3G technologies – they are still at 2G range. So, we specifically designed this plan (for the ICT4SIDS Partnership) that produces solutions that would work with very, very low technologies…”

“Digitalization consists of people, processes and technologies,” underlined Umar.

Concluding, moderator Martin Lugmayr, Sustainable Energy Expert at UNIDO, stressed that there is a long way to go towards realizing inclusive and sustainable industrial development in SIDS, particularly in light of current circumstances. “COVID-19 recovery must have a long-term perspective. Iit has to be green, it has to be blue in the case of Small Island Developing States, and it has to be digital,” he said.

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Human Rights

UN officials fear US terrorist designation will hasten famine in Yemen

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© UNICEF

Senior UN officials have expressed concern over the potential impact of the decision by the United States to designate Yemen’s Ansar Allah, more commonly known as the Houthi movement, a terrorist group, the Security Council heard on Thursday. 

Briefing the online meeting, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said Yemen was going through dark times following a deadly attack last month on its newly-formed Cabinet, and with millions facing potential famine, but emphasized that peace is still possible. 

Mr. Griffiths condemned the 30 December attack at the airport in Aden, which targeted the Government officials who had just arrived from Saudi Arabia.  Dozens of civilians, aid workers and a journalist were also killed. 

“The attack cast a dark shadow over what should have been a moment of hope in the efforts to achieve peace in Yemen. The formation of the Cabinet and its return to Aden was a major milestone for the Riyadh Agreement and for the stability of state institutions, the economy, and the peace process”, he said

“The Government has launched an investigation into the Aden attack and has made its conclusions public earlier today that Ansar Allah was behind the attack.” 

‘Chilling effect’ on peace efforts 

For more than five years, Yemen has been mired in conflict between the internationally-recognized Government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels. 

On Sunday, the United States announced it will designate the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under domestic law.  Mr. Griffiths expressed serious concern over this prospect. 

“We fear in my mission that there will be inevitably a chilling effect on my efforts to bring the parties together. We all hope to have absolute clarity on far-reaching exemptions to be able to carry out our duties”, he said. 

Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 16 million people will go hungry this year, and 50,000 are already essentially starving to death, amid a shortfall in aid.  Preventing a massive famine is the most urgent priority, the UN Humanitarian Affairs chief and Emergency Coordinator told ambassadors. 

Yemenis stockpiling food 

Mark Lowcock called for the FTO designation to be reversed, which Mr. Griffiths also supported, outlining its potential impact on aid relief in a country that overwhelmingly relies on food imports.

He explained that humanitarian agencies provide food vouchers or cash to needy Yemenis so they can shop at markets. 

 “Aid agencies cannot, they simply cannot, replace the commercial import system,” he stressed.  “What this means is that what the commercial importers do is the single biggest determinant of life and death in Yemen.” 

Mr. Lowcock reported that Yemenis are already rushing to markets to stockpile food, while commercial traders fear the designation will affect their operations.   

“Some suppliers, banks, insurers and shippers are ringing up their Yemeni partners and saying they now plan to walk away from Yemen altogether”, he said.  “They say the risks are too high. They fear being accidentally or otherwise caught up in US regulatory action which would put them out of business or into jail.” 

Although the US plans to introduce licences so that some aid and imports can continue, the relief chief said further details will not be available until 19 January, the day the designation takes force. 

Reverse designation, or face catastrophe 

The head of the World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, gave a blunt assessment of the prospects, putting aside his prepared remarks to speak “heart-to-heart”. 

“We are struggling now without the designation. With the designation, it’s going to be catastrophic. It literally is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in Yemen,” he said. 

Mr. Beasley, an American, also removed his “UN hat” for a moment, to speak about his engagement with Washington, which allocated $3.75 billion to WFP last year.  

“I’m very grateful for that”, he said. “But this designation, it needs to be re-assessed, it needs to be re-evaluated, and, quite frankly, it needs to be reversed.” 

Mr. Beasley added that Yemen is among several countries facing famine, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these crises. 

The WFP chief called for Gulf States “to pick up the humanitarian financial tab for this problem in Yemen”, and urged the Council and world leaders to apply pressure on the warring parties to end their fighting. 

 “I can assure you that Mark Lowcock and I will be before you pretty soon talking about other countries,” he said.  “And if we can’t solve this one – this is man-made completely – shame on us.”

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Development

World Bank Plans to Invest over $5 Billion in Drylands in Africa

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The World Bank plans to invest over $5 billion over the next five years to help restore degraded landscapes, improve agriculture productivity, and promote livelihoods across 11 African countries on a swathe of land stretching from Senegal to Djibouti.

World Bank Group President David Malpass announced the investment at the One Planet Summit, a high-level meeting co-hosted with France and the United Nations that is focused on addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.

“This investment, which comes at a crucial time, will help improve livelihoods as countries recover from COVID-19 while also dealing with the impact of both biodiversity loss and climate change on their people and economies,” said Malpass.

The more than $5 billion in financing will support agriculture, biodiversity, community development, food security, landscape restoration, job creation, resilient infrastructure, rural mobility, and access to renewable energy across 11 countries of the Sahel, Lake Chad and Horn of Africa. Many of these efforts are in line with the Great Green Wall initiative. This builds on World Bank landscape investments in these countries over the past eight years that reached more than 19 million people and placed 1.6 million hectares under sustainable land management.

“Restoring natural ecosystems in the drylands of Africa benefits both people and the planet,” said Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.  

Working with many partners, PROGREEN, a World Bank global fund dedicated to boosting countries’ efforts to address landscape degradation, will also invest $14.5 million in five Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania.

The World Bank Group is the biggest multilateral funder of climate investments in developing countries. In December 2020, the World Bank Group announced an ambitious new target for 35% of its financing to have climate co-benefits, on average, over the next five years.

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