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UN humanitarian chief: After COVID-19, it’s in everyone’s interest to help the world's poorest countries

04 May 2020

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The World Food Programme (WFP) distributes cash to food-insecure people in Muona, Nsanje District, southern Malawi, 24 March 2020. As part of prevention measures for COVID-19, the beneficiaries are asked to wash their hands with soap before and after receiving their entitlements. Credit: WFP/Badre Bahaji

Following is an op-ed by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, published today by The Guardian:

As individuals, families, industries and nations plot their course through this pandemic, there is a painful truth that has yet to be properly acknowledged.

The COVID-19 pandemic – and the resulting global recession – is going to have a devastating and destabilizing effect in the world’s poorest countries.

In response, wealthy countries and international financial institutions will need to fundamentally shift their approach to aid and debt. This cannot be business as usual. Extraordinary measures are needed, reflecting the extraordinary problem we face.

For rich countries that will mean a one-off increase in the amount they spend on foreign aid. For the international financial institutions it means changing their lending terms. The alternative is dealing with the spill-over effects over many years to come. That would prove even more painful, and much more expensive. For everyone.

There are many things we do not know about this coronavirus, but it is possible to assess some of the costs of the necessary response in the poorest countries, and how they can be met.

We face the biggest economic slowdown in living memory.  The International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization both predict the global economy will get 3 per cent smaller this year. That would make the Great Lockdown the worst recession since the Great Depression.

In the poorest countries we should be ready for a rise in conflict, hunger, and poverty. The spectre of multiple famines looms.  We can already see economies contracting as export earnings, remittances and tourism disappear. As countries with weak health systems attempt to fight the virus, we can expect an uptick in measles, malaria, cholera and other disease as vaccinations are put on hold, health systems buckle under the strain and medical supplies disrupted. 

Our best estimate is that the cost of protecting the most vulnerable 10 per cent of people in the world’s poorest countries from the very worst impacts of the pandemic is approximately $90 billion. $90 billion is a lot of money. But it is an affordable sum of money. It is equivalent to just 1 per cent of the global stimulus package the world’s richest countries have put in place to save the global economy.

Around two thirds of it could come from organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They will need support to change the terms on which they help the most vulnerable countries: front loading money, reduced interest rates, and further debt relief.

The remainder will need to come from ‘official development assistance’ – the money wealthy countries spend on foreign aid. That currently stands at about $150 billion in total each year. A one-off 20 per cent increase over the next 12 months would generate the $30 billion needed.

An increase in money spent overseas may be an uncomfortable thought for countries battling the virus at home. These are countries where many people are losing their freedoms, their jobs and their loved ones. Countries making significant sacrifices while facing an uncertain future.

But it is precisely at this moment, when those sacrifices are starting to pay off, and as they themselves seek to re-open their economies, that it makes sense also to support the most vulnerable.

Some may be sceptical that additional resources of that magnitude can be generated in the current circumstances. That is not my experience. After the financial crisis of 2008 fundraising for UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals had increased by more than 40 per cent by 2010. That was a result of human generosity and empathy – but also a calculation of national interest in the donor countries.  

Recent history shows us that what happens in the world’s most fragile places has knock-on effects in the most stable countries, whether it’s through uncontrolled migration, terrorism, or global instability.

Leaving the virus to spread unchecked in the world’s most fragile countries, and free to circle back round the world, is in no one’s interest. Nor is economic collapse and instability in the poorest countries.

In a week in which people in some parts of the world have been given cause for optimism, we have seen how the extraordinary actions of individuals can change the trajectory for a whole nation. The same is true on a global level.