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‘Perfect Storm’ of crises take shape

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Against the backdrop of shifting population demographics, conflicts, post-pandemic shocks and climate change, the developing world is on the brink of a “perfect storm” of debt, food and energy crises, experts warned the Commission on Population and Development on Monday.

While sounding the alarm over the planet’s unequal COVID-19 recovery and notable reductions in public spending for youth, older people and other vulnerable populations, officials from across the UN system stressed that this multipronged crisis has a “decidedly female face.”

Opening its fifty-fifth session under the theme “Population and sustainable development, in particular sustained and inclusive economic growth,” marks success for a body that has historically been plagued by gridlock and disagreement.

Population, poverty, economic growth

Commission Chair Enrique A. Manalo said that efforts to slow population growth, decrease poverty, realize economic progress, protect the environment and reduce unsustainable consumption and production are all mutually reinforcing. 

With poverty and inequality gaining renewed attention amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the insights outlined in the Programme of Action agreed upon at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt are as relevant today as ever. 

Although the world’s challenges are not caused by population growth, they are compounded by it, making it more difficult to tackle, he said.

Rising inequality

Rebecca Grynspan, head of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), warned that a systemic debt crisis is unfolding for billions in the developing world – with inflation at a multi-decade high and civil unrest brewing in all corners of the world. 

Meanwhile, progress towards realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been severely hampered as inequalities are rising. 

She drew attention to the world’s large generation of young people, as well as women, voicing hope that their innovative ideas will help reverse these negative trends.

‘Gathering storm of adversity’

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed agreed that the pandemic lent a fresh urgency to the challenges being discussed by the Commission.  COVID-19 kept boys and girls out of school, increased the burden of care work — especially for women — and exacerbated gender-based violence. 

At the same time, the world remains far off track on the goal of eliminating hunger and malnutrition by 2030, and the numbers of people affected by hunger are projected to increase by tens of millions as the war in Ukraine causes food and energy prices to skyrocket. 

“In the face of this gathering storm of adversity, we must come together as an international community,” she said, adding, “we urgently need to renew the social contract to rebuild trust and social cohesion.” 

High stakes for women, girls

Meanwhile, UN Population Fund (UNFPA) chief Natalia Kanem said that COVID-19 has made painfully clear the need for massive investments in family planning services and national health systems that are universal, resilient, data-driven and adequately staffed. 

Lack of bodily autonomy and reproductive choices continue to block women’s path to equality and full participation in economic life,” she said, expressing concern over declining funding for population-related matters – especially sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights – as countries shift their priorities amid the pandemic. 

We cannot afford further reversals – the stakes for women, girls and young people, and for their societies, are far too high.”

Critical care work

In her keynote address, Jayati Ghosh, Professor in the Department of Economics, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, emphasized that the “perfect storm” of challenges described by Ms. Grynspan cannot be tackled without inclusion. 

That means reducing inequalities, which will always engender backlash and pushback. 

She also voiced concern over the continuing disinvestment in care work, a burden which will only increase amid future demographic challenges and climate change impacts. 

If we do not empower women … we will be unable to deal with the major challenges facing society,” she cautioned.

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Zimbabwean peacekeeper selected as UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year 2021 Award

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Following reports of sexual and gender-based violence against women collecting firewood in Rubkona, South Sudan, Captain Irene Wilson Muro and and Major Winnet Zharare (2nd from the right) reached out to local women to discuss ways to stem the abuse. Photo: UNMISS

A Zimbabwean peacekeeper who recently completed her assignment with the UN Mission in South Sudan, will receive the 2021 United Nations Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award. 

Military Observer Major Winnet Zharare, 39, served in Bentiu, South Sudan in 2021-2022, and will receive the award from the Secretary-General António Guterres during a ceremony marking the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on Thursday, 26 May 2022.

Created in 2016, the United Nations “Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award” recognizes the dedication and efforts of an individual military peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, as nominated by Heads and Force Commanders of UN peace operations.

Secretary-General António Guterres commended Major Winnet for her award. “Major Zharare is a role model and a trailblazer. Through her service, she has demonstrated the invaluable role that women play in building trust, advocating for change and forging peace,” he said. “Her example shows how we will all gain with more women at the decision-making table and gender parity in peace operations,” Mr. Guterres added. 

Major Zharare expressed her gratitude and pride in receiving  the award which, she said, “motivated [her] to maintain [her] course towards gender equality.”

“My parents gave us equal opportunities with my brothers, so I believe that equal opportunities should be given to both men and women in all aspects of life,” she added.

Major Winnet Zharare deployed to UNMISS in November 2020. Throughout her 17-month-long service, she advocated for gender parity and women’s participation, within her own ranks, among local military counterparts, and in host communities.

As the Chief Military Information Officer in UNMISS’  Bentiu field office, she helped ensure that patrols included both women and men to improve protection efforts as well as build trust between host communities and the Mission. Her efforts also contributed to an increase in  gender-aggregated data so that issues raised by local women and girls would gain appropriate attention.

Advocating for gender parity and womens’ participation in an environment where they are traditionally excluded from decision-making, she encouraged local civilian and military authorities and community representatives to involve both men and women in meetings with the UN. Her diligence and diplomatic skills quickly gained her the trust of local military commanders who would systematically reach out to her on issues pertaining to women’s protection and rights. During her patrols and numerous community engagement initiatives, Major Zharare also successfully encouraged men and women to work together in farming and in the construction of dikes around Bentiu town to alleviate food shortages and prevent further displacement.

Major Zharare is the first Zimbabwean peacekeeper to receive this prestigious award.

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‘New dawn’ for Europe as War in Ukraine Strengthens EU and Support for Enlargement

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The European Union surprised the world, and even itself, with the speed, scale and unity of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This “new” Europe is ready to project both soft and hard power on the world stage, European leaders told participants at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.

Christine Lagarde, President, European Central Bank, on the panel at the session, European Unity in a Disordered World?, said the Ukraine war has revealed how powerful Europe is collectively: “This is a new dawn for Europe.”

The war on Ukraine has also revealed weaknesses – including global supply chain vulnerabilities and over-reliance on Russian energy, she said, but Europe is addressing this and can begin to flex its muscles on the global stage. “Europe has untapped purchasing power, trading power, technology power, pension power and moral power.”

Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament, reinforced the point. “This is Europe’s moment,” she said. “Europe can become the global project for peace.”

Mistakes of the past will be rectified, she said. “For way too long we did not seriously consider an energy union where we can rely on each other rather than on a country that can switch us off at any time.”

Referring to the EU’s support and defence of Ukraine, she was emphatic: “This is not the time to talk about face-saving for Russia or appeasement.”

Eduard Heger, Prime Minister of Slovakia, also on the panel, said: “If Ukraine falls to Russian aggression, Slovakia is next.” He added that we must continue to provide military support as well as step up humanitarian aid. “Above all we need to give Ukrainians hope.”

“Let’s not compromise – we must remain faithful to the values of the EU – freedom, rule of law, human dignity and equal rights.”

Micheál Martin, Taoiseach of Ireland, said of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “The people of Europe have spoken. Enough is enough.” In response there is much stronger unanimity between member states and more support than ever to accept the accession of new members.

He continued: “We see the EU’s future in terms of the green economy and in terms of the digitalization but also in terms of enlargement.”

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, called on European member states to continue to raise their defence spending. “The NATO alliance members are inseparable, but Europe must play its part,” he said. “This will help transform Europe from a soft power to a hard power.”

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Geopolitical Crises Forcing Leaders to Face up to Difficult New Realities

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Poland’s President Andrzej Duda delivered a harsh rebuke to Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, pledging “100% support” for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and calling for Moscow to pay reparations to Kyiv. “I simply cannot accept that Russia can violate international law with impunity.”

Russian aggression against Ukraine has revived unity within the West and highlighted for many Western nations the importance of democratic values. Finland and Sweden, notably, have set aside their longstanding policies of neutrality and applied to join NATO. “We are in a totally new situation and have to wake up to that,” said Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, noting that the collapse of the post-war European security architecture, as well as Russia’s increased appetite for risk, were among the major factors prompting Finland to apply for membership.

Haavisto said that in this “grey time” between the Nordic country’s application to join the alliance and its potential full accession, when it will enjoy mutual security protection under Article 5 of the NATO charter, NATO members have given Finland and Sweden assurances that they will guarantee security. Asked about Turkey’s stated objection to extension of membership to Finland and Sweden, he expressed confidence that Helsinki can address concerns.

Alarmed by an increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape marked by mounting frictions between the United States and China, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia, emphasized the need for cooperation.

“If we learned anything from COVID, it is that we need to focus on cooperation and I think we need to continue to look towards avenues to foster that cooperation. Even when there is difference, when there’s competition, we need to find mechanisms to talk to each other.” He noted that Saudi Arabia, which values both its extensive trade relationship with China and its national security relationship with the US, is well-positioned to facilitate dialogue between the world’s leading powers.

Prince Faisal’s remarks were echoed by Pakistan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, who commented on the “binary choice” that countries with close ties to both China and the US are increasingly asked to make. “We are typically asked this question all the time: Who do you choose? It shows how far we have fallen as a global community,” she said. This is particularly difficult, she noted, for a country like Pakistan, which is already in fiscal crisis and now faces “the superimposition of a food security crisis”.

Gregory W. Meeks, Democratic Congressman from New York’s 6th District and Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign, praised the bipartisan support for a recent Senate bill pledging $40 billion in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, as well as the broad international support that Ukraine has received.

He also focused on the potential food crisis, emphasizing the need to break the blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports so Ukrainian grain can be delivered to the many countries that depend on it. “You got to open [the port of Odessa] up because that’s not been just limited to what’s happening in Ukraine; this threatens the entire world.”

Madrid is host to next month’s NATO summit and Spain’s Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares Bueno, praised the alliance’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. But he emphasized the threat that the looming food crisis, if left unresolved, could pose to Europe. Noting that the Sahel – the region of North Africa bordering the Sahara – is not only already deeply food-insecure, he warned that rising cereal prices could set off a potentially destabilizing northward migration. “Unity is our best defence.”

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