How will COVID-19 change global development? 5 experts weigh in

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
United Nations' workers wearing protective clothing make their way to hand out medicine to Palestinian patients during the COVID-19 outbreak at the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City. Photo by: Mohammed Salem / Reuters

WASHINGTON — The unofficial theme of the 75th United Nations General Assembly, which certainly looked and felt different, was the response to and recovery from COVID-19.

The unprecedented crisis has cast a long shadow and disrupted ongoing development efforts, which were already falling short of what was necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told Devex the world now faces two potential scenarios: one in which wealthy nations step up to provide additional financing for the global south, particularly through debt relief and ensuring access to a vaccine, or one in which the world’s poorer countries are left to go it alone.

Leaving the world’s poorest on their own could cause an economic disruption lasting five to seven years, with dramatic consequences for global financial systems, Guterres said.

That would undoubtedly have a dramatic impact on development and the agencies and organizations that provide aid. Devex asked five experts how COVID-19 could reshape development and change their organizations. Here’s what they had to say:

Achim Steiner: In dark times, ‘people find the strength to think about tomorrow’

In the short term, the development community will “come under far greater stress,” especially when it comes to funding, said U.N. Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner.

The U.N. has had to beg member states just to pay their regular budget contributions, and the overall development finance system’s response has fallen short, he said.

“So inevitably we will all come under scrutiny — first of all, by the people in the streets who will say: ‘Where are you? International community, where is solidarity when we need it?’ But then also by those who will ask themselves: ‘Are the institutions and are the means by which we resource our international institutions as a backbone, as a global safety net, as a humanitarian response capacity — are we dealing with them adequately?’” Steiner said.

COVID-19 response a tale of two UNs, UNDP chief says

UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner shares his thoughts on the COVID-19 response, the inaction of the richest countries, and what can be done as the world reflects on the crisis during the high-level week of this year's U.N. General Assembly.

The General Assembly has asked Guterres to develop a number of recommendations that would help countries “refocus on what is it that we actually need the United Nations for in the year 2030 or 2040,” he said.

While this is a difficult geopolitical moment, Steiner said he is convinced that most people do not question the need for the U.N.

“It is sometimes in the darkest moments of history where people find the strength to think about tomorrow. And I think we are exactly in the midst of that moment,” he said.

A few years from now, this crisis may even result in reempowering and reinvigorating the U.N., Steiner said, adding that it may even provide the mandate for deeper reforms that some believe are long overdue.

“They need to grow out of a consensus that we want a strong, effective, credible, and functional U.N. And that, at the moment, is really something that has not been there,” he said. “We take the United Nations for granted. We use it when we need it, but we actually don't invest in it and we don't govern it as a responsible international community. And that has hurt the organization.”

Sibylle Sorg: ‘Discouraging’ funding implications

COVID-19 has meant mounting funding needs for ongoing humanitarian crises and new disasters such as the explosion in Beirut, the locust plague, and the pandemic itself. Despite the unprecedented need, underfunding has become a regular feature, said Sibylle Sorg, Germany’s director general for crisis prevention and stabilization, post-conflict peace building, and humanitarian assistance, at an event last week.

Some important donors have reduced their funding levels in 2020, which has “sent discouraging signals, not only to those suffering, but also to the many humanitarian partners who work under exceptionally difficult circumstances on the ground,” she said.

“The very small number of donors providing the major part of humanitarian assistance worldwide has always been challenging. In the light of skyrocketing needs, however, this is getting completely unsustainable. We can’t put more and more responsibility on fewer and fewer shoulders,” Sorg said.

The top 10 humanitarian donors need to collectively reach out to new potential donors to get them to contribute, and they should commit to increasing funding or at least maintaining 2019 levels, she said.

The humanitarian system will likely continue to be stressed to its limits in 2021, and national budgets will continue to be under strain. “Burden-sharing and outreach are even more important to secure a more resilient humanitarian system,” she said.

“We take the United Nations for granted. We use it when we need it, but we actually don't invest in it and we don't govern it as a responsible international community.”

— Achim Steiner, administrator, UNDP

Ronald Cohen: ‘It's not enough to keep throwing money at old ways of doing things’

While the amount of official development assistance is likely to fall at a time when it is critically needed, a shift in financial markets may be accelerated by COVID-19 and could bring a different type of funding, Ronald Cohen, chairman of the Global Steering Group for Impact Investing, told Devex.

“COVID is accelerating the momentum in the impact space because it's obvious that governments are going to be cash-strapped with huge amounts of national debt on their backs coming out of this crisis, at a time when they're going to see a huge peak in the social challenges they face,” he said. “There is going to be no way for governments to emerge sooner out of this crisis and in better shape to create a fairer, more sustainable world than to bring companies and investors to deliver solutions.”

While more investors are expressing an interest in impact investing or sustainable investing and financial institutions are beginning to coalesce around standards, governments will need to play a role in making this shift in investing come about, Cohen said.

“Governments have to be active here, and they can't get bogged down into fighting the health crisis and not worrying about the type of economy we're going to have when we emerge from this,” he said. “We have to change our economy. It's not enough to keep throwing money at old ways of doing things. We need to bring impact alongside profit to drive our economies.”

Sarah Cliffe: ‘Good outcome and a bad outcome’

The pandemic could continue to have long-term implications for development trends, even once the coronavirus becomes better contained, Sarah Cliffe, director of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, told Devex.

Cliffe expects that an eventual COVID-19 vaccine will not provide a “silver bullet” and that COVID-19 “will be with us for some time,” she said.

There is 'enough common ground' to revitalize the UN, but it still won't be easy

Governments agreed to recommit and upgrade the U.N. during the General Assembly this week. Despite a jump in public demand for international cooperation, the pandemic and rising nationalism are two challenges to progress, experts say.

“I think that we could see a good outcome and a bad outcome from this,” Cliffe said. “So the bad outcome would be that the system becomes overwhelmed. There are no more resources. There are some resources spread more thinly and constant pooling of attention from crisis to crisis.

“The good outcome, I think, would be that we use this shock to the system to think that there are a small number of really key issues that we've been refusing to grapple with in the last few years.”

The issues that require more attention include inequality — on the rise before COVID-19 and now exacerbated as a result of the pandemic — and the interconnectedness of health and social systems.

The pandemic also poses additional risks, including a rise in political instability and conflict over the coming months and years. The global economic contraction during the pandemic increases the risk of conflict, and a number of elections scheduled for 2020 have been postponed to 2021, she said.

Amina Mohammed: Those with resources ‘need to look outwards’

While COVID-19 has in some ways paused “everything,” it has not stopped climate change, the need for poverty alleviation, or “all the issues we had when we shaped the agenda for the SDGs,” said Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general at the U.N., at a World Economic Forum event last week.

COVID-19, therefore, should only reinforce the need for the SDGs as a framework, and the goals should be front and center in any response, she said.

Mohammed called on the world’s richer countries, those which have spent trillions on their domestic stimulus packages, to step up and support poorer countries.

UN chief: 'We are in trouble, and we need to change course'

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tells Devex Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar that the pandemic has revealed deep fragility in the world — and leaders are falling short of a unified response.

“The spending has to be global,” she said. “Everyone needs a stimulus package and spending to happen right now so we don’t reverse those gains.”

That spending must be targeted at reducing inequalities and a recovery that is greener, provides better jobs and education, and helps the informal sector through technology, she said.

“As we look at the spending, those with the resources are looking inwards, and quite frankly, if we need a global response, they need to look outwards,” Mohammed said. “The oxygen mask has been put on your face and you’re breathing really well. Many others are not. The knock-on effects of the lockdown has been a socioeconomic crisis. So I think, working together with G-20 [Group of 20] leaders, they have to open up that space and make more resources available.”

Amy Lieberman, Catherine Cheney, and Michael Igoe contributed reporting to this article.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.