Global challenges demand one thing above all else: intensive cooperation. An essay by UN Under-Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond.
In 1964, the Robert Bosch Stiftung was formally established to pursue Robert Bosch’s philanthropic vision to advance progress in the fields of health, education, and international understanding. Robert Bosch had yearned for peace his whole life and long supported Franco-German reconciliation. To honour his legacy, the newly created Foundation placed international understanding at the core of its mission.
The world, however, looked very different in 1964 than it does today. Threats to international understanding were linked to ideological differences and the overdue process of decolonization. Fears abounded that the Cold War could stoke nuclear deflagration and conflict between the two superpowers: 1964 marked both the Gulf of Tonkin incident that precipitated greater US involvement in Vietnam, as well as the beginning of the Rhodesian Bush War.
The threats people and planet face today are related to a different set of challenges, incipient but not yet foreseen at the time. These include global warming and the destruction of bio-diversity, growing inequality, xenophobia, resurgent nativism and political polarization around migration, the disruptive impact of transformative new technologies and the demographic trends that will lead to distortions in age distribution as well as ever greater unplanned urbanization. Moreover, since 1964, a world order divided between two powers gave way with the fall of the Berlin Wall to one with a single power. Now many see us making an uneasy transition to a multi-polar world order. A former French permanent representative to the UN has referred to these developments as a “new world disorder,” while the UN Secretary-General has spoken of “chaotization.”
Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond is Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on the Preparations for the Commemoration of the United Nations’ 75th Anniversary. He has also served as Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination in the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General.
We are facing a fundamental and potentially tragic paradox between an increase in global challenges and a retreat from the institutions that can pursue global solutions. And yet, failure to address these challenges will have far-reaching consequences for the welfare of our children and grandchildren and of our planet itself.
This is particularly obvious when it comes to climate change. Climate change is moving much faster than we are. Last autumn, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a sober warning: we have just eleven years left to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. We are already seeing the effects around us: heat waves in Europe, droughts in Africa, storms in the Caribbean and in the United States. Last year, an estimated 17.2 million people were newly displaced as a result of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. There are predictions of up to one billion climate migrants by 2050, if current global warming trends are not reversed.
Forced displacement, of course, is only one demographic trend we will need to manage better. In many of the poorer parts of the world, the proportion of youth is growing while in many OECD countries, the proportion of elderly is growing and the elderly are living longer. Across the globe, just over half of all people live in cities today. This figure will rise to at least 75 percent by 2050. These population trends will have a profound impact on our health systems, on migratory pressures and needs as well as on our economies.
“How can we better manage digital technology to ensure human wellbeing?”
Meanwhile, inequality is on the rise between and within countries, and remains a significant contributor to the growing disconnect and distrust that people feel towards governments and institutions. Inequality and exclusion are the single largest driver of conflict according to a 2018 UN World Bank study, Pathways for Peace. While wages of low income earners have stagnated or declined in real terms in the last decades, the number of billionaires has risen tenfold. Last year, both Oxfam and Credit Suisse reported that if you filled an average-sized classroom with the world’s richest people, their combined wealth would be equivalent to what the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity possess.
And then there are new technologies which are spreading and impacting lives in a manner and at a pace never witnessed before. It took cars some sixty years to reach their first 50 million users. It has taken digital technology less than 30 years to reach half the planet. Digital technology and artificial intelligence hold great promise but we understand very little about what their impact will be on our privacy, on democracy, on our jobs, on social cohesion, and on conflict.
To seek to understand how we can better manage digital technology to ensure human wellbeing while curtailing unintended consequences and misuse, the UN Secretary-General in July 2018 convened the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. Its report – The Age of Digital Interdependence – concluded that there is an indispensable and urgent requirement to work much better not only across international borders but also across disciplines, if we are to steer new technology for the greater good. Such multi-stakeholder cooperation, the report also suggested, needs to be much nimbler, more agile and deliver faster results than some of our current UN processes.
“We need new approaches and creative thinking.”
The UN Secretary-General has stressed that we cannot hope to build a safe future for our children in the 21st century if our institutions and mindsets are stuck in the 20th century. Efforts at reforming and modernizing all sectors are critical to help address the transversal challenges of our time.
In the United Nations the UN Secretary-General António Guterres is leading multiple efforts to make us more effective in delivering on our core functions of promoting peace, security, social justice, and sustainable development.
As we approach our 75th anniversary, in an effort to reconnect with the people we were established to serve, a new initiative has been launched to hear from citizens worldwide on how to improve global cooperation in the face of the most pressing global threats. The Secretary-General has tasked me with promoting a global discussion about the future we want, and the future we are on track to get if current global trends are not better attended to by existing and newly emerging institutions.
We will be organizing thousands of citizen consultations globally, with a focus on youth, on our critics and on marginalized groups to hear their views on the role of global cooperation to deliver better on the future. We will be cooperating with the entire UN system and other partners for this initiative. We will bring the outcome to the attention of heads of state at the UN General Assembly in September 2020. We are proud to be undertaking this in partnership with civil society organisations worldwide.
We at the United Nations believe that at this juncture of global uncertainty, new approaches and creative thinking are an absolute requirement for sustainability of peace, people, and planet. It brings hope that an increasing number of individuals and organisations share this vision and are seeking to adapt their institutions to today’s emerging and tomorrow’s dominant issues.