Socio-economic challenges must be addressed in COVID-19 response, UNDP chief says

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Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by: Ariana Lindquist / U.N.

WASHINGTON — Even as the global response to COVID-19 focuses on immediate health needs and stopping the spread of the virus, it must also address the socio-economic fallout of the crisis, especially for the most vulnerable, United Nations Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner told Devex.

“Our economies, our societies, our communities have to rediscover how to live with nature.”

— Achim Steiner, administrator, UNDP

All of UNDP’s country teams continue to operate, though many are working remotely and having to find new ways to operate, with some programs in “slowdown mode or paused,” Steiner said in an interview. UNDP has also refocused teams and repurposed resources, in collaboration with countries, to scale the COVID-19 response.

There is an imperative to act on COVID-19, and shift resources to that effort, but what is important is how countries choose to spend their money and what kind of mitigation efforts they decide to put in place, he said.

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“We may either indebt the next generation for what is happening now, or perhaps more quickly recover with an economy that may actually have less of a burden, less of a cost on future generations, and therefore make the paying of the price for this pandemic ... more bearable,” Steiner said.  

A holistic response will require putting aside politics, more coordinated global leadership, and more resources, he said. The current low levels of support and funding for international institutions signals a lack of appreciation for global cooperation, Steiner said. Resources for the poorest countries are far below what they need to be, he added, but said he was hopeful there would be an increase in funding in the next few weeks.

“The need right now is empowering citizens, maintaining government operational capacity, cross-border collaboration, international cooperation,” Steiner said.

“Those are the variables that will allow us, first of all, to achieve the suppression of this disease and secondly, to mitigate the socio-economic impacts, which will have reverberations far beyond national markets, national economies, the stock exchanges of individual countries.”

More than health

While COVID-19 is a massive health emergency, the socio-economic impact of the crisis threatens development progress and the lives and livelihoods of people living in the world’s poorest countries, Steiner said.

Less than half of the world’s population has access to social protection, and the number is even lower in low- and middle-income countries, he said. Lower-income countries also tend to have high percentages of people working in the informal sector — in India some 81% work in the informal sector, and other countries have an even higher share of informal employment. When an economy shuts down, informal workers have no social protection and no income.

“The images we have seen from many countries across the world speak to a kind of freefall that they are now finding themselves in — struggling for their lives, but also without livelihoods that they can rely on,” Steiner said. “This is obviously going to create a crisis of extraordinary proportions.”

UNDP is working with other U.N. agencies to help conduct socio-economic assessments,  help governments effectively communicate about COVID-19 and counter fake news, and support government capacity and technology infrastructure, he said.

“We focus very hard on maintaining our operational capacity, because now is the moment when our teams in these countries actually need to be accessible and able to support governments in these responses,” he said.

Countries need to find ways to support informal workers and small- and medium-sized enterprises, and programs should be designed with an eye to quickly regaining development momentum in the recovery phase of the response.

“If we want to provide an effective way of not allowing hundreds of millions of people to go into that crisis mode of economic destitution, then standing up such programs quickly is absolutely essential,” he said.

There is a need for immediate support but also an opportunity to use longer-term recovery efforts to rethink development strategies, taking into account issues the crisis has highlighted including inequality, governance, climate change, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The acceleration of the fourth industrial revolution has been particularly visible as technological changes and a reliance on digital platforms is being fast-forwarded in this crisis. The way UNDP is operating today — with Steiner able to connect to any of the agency’s staff or host large town hall meetings virtually — would have been unthinkable five years ago, he said.

Climate change

The 2020 U.N. Climate Conference, COP26 has been postponed to 2021 as a result of the pandemic, pushing back a key milestone in the Paris climate agreement where countries were expected to present their national climate strategies.

The move is a setback but “we also should be realistic and pragmatic” as delaying the conference doesn’t mean that the climate process has been canceled, Steiner said, who served as executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme prior to joining UNDP.

“The whole world has gone into a slow motion track right now. So the fact that the Glasgow COP also has to give way by a few months, I think should be interpreted as what it is, not a collapse of climate policy and cooperation, but really just a delayed convening of that conference,” he said.

While the COP is a critical milestone, 99.9% of climate change action does not happen during or through these conferences, Steiner said.

What is important is providing enough support to the world’s poorest countries so they don’t have to face a trade-off between COVID-19 and climate change. While COVID-19 and its resulting economic impacts are clearly a priority, the challenge of climate change hasn’t diminished, he said.

This crisis may, in some parts of the world, turn out to be an opportunity, especially if countries incorporate climate change-related concepts and incentives into national recovery strategies.

With 600 million people in Africa still without access to electricity, boosting access could help provide economic activity in places that are most affected by COVID-19, Steiner said.

The COP delay is “regrettable but inevitable” but the threads can be picked up in early 2021 when the forum may even serve as an accelerator of a smarter recovery from COVID-19, he said.

“Our economies, our societies, our communities have to rediscover how to live with nature. And how they do that in the coming years will in large part determine whether the magnitude of pandemics, natural disasters, crises become more and more intense, or whether we can reestablish a degree of coexistence with nature that actually stabilizes our communities, our societies, our economies, and therefore becomes a way of thinking about the future of development with different parameters,” Steiner said.

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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.