Q&A: On COVID-19, Melanne Verveer is waiting for a signal from UN Security Council

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Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University. Photo by: U.S. Institute of Peace / CC BY

NEW YORK — Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University, was among the women leaders who recently called on the United Nations Security Council to act with a strong resolution on the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“This is the greatest peacetime challenge that the United Nations and humanity as a whole has ever faced,” Verveer and others, such as Helen Clark and Madeleine Albright, wrote in an open letter.

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Security Council member states have yet to agree upon a resolution. But Verveer, who was the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, is still advocating for action — and the recognition that the pandemic should pave a new path forward in development work, not lead to a setback in progress.

“One of my frustrations is that our gut reaction is business as usual, instead of learning from these experiences and adapting them and scaling them and using them to ensure that we're not repeating the mistakes of the past,” Verveer said.

“The solution has to come with global leadership. And that's why the U.N. was created in the first place. … If it didn't exist, we'd probably be struggling to create it today.”

— Melanne Verveer, executive director, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security

Verveer spoke with Devex recently about what lessons could be learned from COVID-19 and how they could spur change moving forward.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do you think this pandemic could change the way that development work is done?

There's a saying after conflict — to “build back and build better.” And one can only hope that this will lead to really building better. But I worry about the level of devastation and destruction and demoralization.

I was thinking about the climate issue. There are those who say that this is really going to hurt what has to happen in terms of progress on climate change, which was slow to begin with. And now, we will be dealing with the consequences of a pandemic. And yet there are others who say, “Well, actually, this could be a wake-up call on climate change, the experience with a global nature of a pandemic, and none of us are escaping and there are not any borders.”

There are good ideas coming forward as plans are developed for rebuilding economies, like: Shouldn't renewable energy be a huge component in those plans? The question is: Are we going to take from Peter to pay Paul, or are we actually going to find new resources?

How big is the risk of development progress experiencing a setback, if funding is increasingly redirected into COVID-19 response and prevention?

Money has to be put to dealing with the dire health care needs and dealing with economic desperation and feeding people. So it's understandable that resources are going to be needed.

But I think if new money is not going to be put in, then it's going to take away [from development work]. A lot of the women who signed the letter to the Security Council last week, the great majority, have been heads of various U.N. agencies. And one of the fears is what will happen to the path of the SDGs and everybody's work to try to realize the SDGs. And is that going to be set back? And I think it could well be set back.

I was involved in the Beijing women's conference 25 years ago, and all of the efforts that were put in place to really analyze the gaps that still exist. And now you juxtapose that to the situation of women dealing with this terrible COVID-19, either as health care workers on the front lines, as refugees, or as women who are in conflict zones — and what that's going to represent for them, as it always does.

It just exacerbates those problems. You want to keep going forward because we need to and we must. But those inequalities are now demonstrating themselves once again in this pandemic.

The Security Council has received criticism for not responding to COVID-19 with a resolution. How much of a loss is this inaction?

It's really troubling, because the Security Council has the primary responsibility for peace and security and there's so many threats to peace and security this pandemic represents. So they're being absent.

I'm hoping that one of these draft declarations will eventually command all of the votes that it needs in the Security Council, because I think those resolutions do have impact. They can galvanize, and there has to be a way now where the U.N. can play a much more coordinated role globally.

A signal from the Security Council would be very meaningful. The Security Council was there on Ebola, was there on HIV/AIDS. And it had tremendous import and impact.

There needs to be leadership that somehow intervenes to get some resolution and action within the Security Council.

It seems the lack of leadership at a national and international level is a recurrent theme with this crisis. Do you think that alternatives, like a growth in local leadership, could emerge from this?

I think the question is the whole future of multilateralism. Certainly the G-7, the G-20 — but how are we coming together with leadership globally to address these problems, which are not local issues?

We are all in this together, as we keep saying over and over. But the leadership is not demonstrating we're all in this together in ways that will enable better solutions to come to the fore with resources to ensure that the damage is minimized. 

The solution is not singular authoritarian voices. The solution has to come with global leadership. And that's why the U.N. was created in the first place. And I think if it didn't exist, we'd probably be struggling to create it today. So it's really very discouraging when the Security Council, which has so much impact within the institution, is absent.

People are doing whatever they have to do. And there are still plenty of U.N. agencies that are dealing on the front lines with providing assistance of one kind or another. They are still very much there, but they could be supported in more significant ways if there was greater action and commitment at the top.

The Commission on the Status of Women forum was canceled this spring, just as the pandemic was breaking out. Are you seeing other ways women are still convening, or do you think the work has been postponed?

It's disappointing because one of the things I've learned is how really vital it is for women to be networked.

It sounds a rather banal statement, but you think of the work in isolation so many women are engaged in — where they can come together across those borders and boundaries and exchange views and learn from each other, it is extremely robust and helpful.

To me, a simple cellphone is one of the vital tools of development. And yet, as we're trying to now do all of this work remotely, you're running into the fact that you don't have expansive broadband in some places. You don't have access to Zoom and Skype.

How do we work around these deficiencies now that it has become so obvious so that we can still maintain those contacts? Because contacts are going to be critically important as people are going through this period of great suffering and anguish to really be supportive of each other, as we have to rebuild and move on.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.