Opinion: The choice we face to get things back on track

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Supported by EU funding, Norwegian Refugee Council ensures access to school in Heart, Afghanistan, for children from different regions of the country who had to escape conflict or drought. Photo by: European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

We face a choice. We can let 2021 be the year of the grand reversal — the unraveling of 40 years of human progress — or we can put the necessary effort and money into getting things back on track.

Progress happened because nations invested in education, vaccines, health care, and equality. Those gains we made were hard won. They benefit everyone. And they’re worth fighting for.

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They’re the difference between a 12-year-old girl going to school rather than getting married; children getting a simple vaccination rather than dying from a preventable disease; and childbirth representing the start of life rather than a threat to life.

For these wealthy countries to choose not to do more now is cruel and irresponsible. It risks squandering the investment they have made in development using taxpayers’ money.

The last few months have knocked things off course. Extreme poverty has risen for the first time in 22 years. Children are missing vaccinations. Girls are no longer in school. The threat of multiple famines looms on the horizon.

Today we are publishing the “Global Humanitarian Overview 2021,” a comprehensive, authoritative, and evidence-based assessment of humanitarian needs in the year ahead.

2021 will be the 'bleakest and darkest' yet for humanitarian needs

The pandemic has created new, all-time-high requirements for humanitarian response. OCHA announced Tuesday that it is seeking more than $35 billion to reach 235 million people in need.

Since the start of this year, the number of people who need humanitarian aid to survive has risen from 170 million to nearly 240 million today. Almost entirely because of COVID-19. Numbers so large they can be hard to wrap your head around. Behind each one is a unique human life.

The challenge is massive but it’s not too late to get things back on track. It will require those who hold the power and make funding decisions to make a choice to protect decades of hard-won global development with a financial response that matches the scale of the crisis.

We know what the problems are. We know what they have the potential to become. We know what can — and should — be done about them. The virus caught the world off guard. But there is no excuse for inaction at this point.

We’ve done it before. Look at the 2008 financial crisis. Larger economies used the international financial institutions flexibly and creatively to deal with the problem. Fundraising for U.N. coordinated humanitarian appeals had increased by more than 40% by 2010. We could do it again.

Now is the time to protect aid budgets, extend and expand debt relief beyond the debt service suspension initiative, issue SDRs and devote them to the poorest countries, and use the balance sheets of the shared financial institutions more aggressively to protect the most vulnerable.

It is affordable. Much of what needs to happen would cost high-income countries very little in fiscal terms. In the GHO 2021 we are asking for $35 billion to help 160 million people next year. A fraction of the $12 trillion stimulus packages of wealthy nations.

Action now is in everyone’s interests. Of course each nation must prioritize its own economy and people. But better-off countries failing to take robust action now is not only a failure of empathy. It is an act of self harm. If they are ignored, the problems triggered by the global economic contraction will hurt everyone.

Poverty, hunger, sickness, and suffering fuel grievances and despair. In their wake come conflict, instability, migration and refugee flows, all giving succor to authoritarian regimes, extremist groups and terrorists. The consequences will reach far and last long.

Which is why it is surprising that while better-off countries have rightly thrown out the rule book to pump liquidity and fiscal support into their own economies, they have done so little to protect the poorest countries — that don’t have the capacity, resources, or access to markets to do the same thing.

For these wealthy countries to choose not to do more now is cruel and irresponsible. It risks squandering the investment they have made in development using taxpayers’ money. And it’s woefully shortsighted.

These are not normal times. This is a critical juncture in what will almost certainly be the biggest single crisis of our lifetimes. We won’t get a second chance to make the right choice. History will judge us all harshly if we get it wrong.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mark Lowcock

    In May 2017, Mark Lowcock of the United Kingdom was appointed as the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and emergency relief coordinator. With over 30 years of humanitarian and development experience, Mr. Lowcock serves as the chief coordinator of the world’s humanitarian response in times of urgent crisis. In his most recent position, as permanent secretary for the Department for International Development, Mr. Lowcock led the United Kingdom’s humanitarian response to conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya as well as to natural disasters in the Philippines and Nepal.