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UNited for a fairer and more sustainable recovery

Arancha Gonzalez Laya
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain; former Executive Director of the International Trade Centre

Imagine playing a football match with half of the team seated on the bench. Or rowing a boat with only one oar. Or playing a game of chess without the full complement of rooks and knights. The results of all three of these scenarios would be sub-optimal. Now imagine trying to recover from one of the greatest global disruptions seen in more than a century and going at it alone. 

If we are to reset the world economy, we need to do it together. We need to rebuild, recommit and reaffirm that multilateral approaches to global crises as the only route to a sustainable and inclusive recovery for all. The pandemic has lay bare our interdependence and has provided in stark terms examples of how a national action can have a global reaction.

Whether it be coordinating global health and sanitary regulations, travel requirements or vaccine distribution, in these past two years we have seen where going at it alone has led to inequity, unfairness and ineffectiveness. There is no substitute for a shared multilateral approach to a shared global problem.

And it is not just through the lens of the pandemic that acting multilaterally matters. With the impending climate disaster on the horizon what is required is something greater than simply the sum of national solutions. 

As we move into a new year where the pandemic is still decimating health systems, entrepreneurship and lives, it’s time to place multilateralism back on the top of the agenda. 

First, recommit to multilateralism as a route to shared prosperity. We know the concerns: it’s too slow, it’s too complex; it only results in the least common denominator. However, no national intervention can replicate the legitimacy, shared responsibility and impact of an agreement reached by big and small, least developed countries and G7 states, small islands and nuclear powers.

An approach that views our multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and its agencies, and the World Trade Organization as global common goods that need protecting and preserving for future generations, is necessary. But it is also important that these multilateral institutions adapt to a changing world, that they reform to remain fit for purpose. States, who are the main stakeholders in these institutions, must drive the change rather than defend the status quo. Not advancing is in reality moving backwards.

Second, we need to invest in resilience for all. Not just ensuring that only half of the football team is able to access food, shelter and safety but that we rebuild the fundamentals of modern and mature societies which should be about providing opportunities for prosperity across the board. This will require greater investment in institutions and ecosystems and a relook at how trade can play a particular role in this reconfiguration for resilience. 

Trade is a route to greater diversification of production and hence to more opportunities for citizens. But this is not immediate and automatic. It is also not without pain. Trade rules help to provide transparency and regulatory consistency, while the WTO helps to stymy the threat of protectionism through its monitoring and soft pressure. And this is important because by now we know that trade protectionism doesn’t protect jobs. In short, trade rules make trade possible, but we need to ensure that trade happens, and more importantly, that trade works for all. This is why multilateral efforts need to be combined with strong policies at home to manage the transition. Initiatives such as Aid for Trade and the enhanced integrated framework – two platforms for trade-related assistance under the WTO roof – place a spotlight on the needs of poorer countries for this kind of support, while helping to showcase why investing in trade can lead to scalable and impactful results. 

Resilience must also mean climate crisis adaptation, advocacy and action. A truly inclusive multilateral approach is the only way forward. The impact of climate change will not hit all countries and populations at the same time and in the same way, but the uncomfortable truth is that it will eventually hit us all. That is no longer open to debate. Already we are seeing a growing trend across the world of climate change refugees. States, cities, citizens, businesses, investors, financiers, must all be part of this new inclusive multilateralism if we are to address our common threats. 

And third, attention needs to be paid to the social fabric of our societies. The pandemic unearthed the dark underbelly of the gig economy, of underemployment, and of the general vulnerability of a vast majority of our populations. It made us rediscover the greatest danger to our common progress: inequalities. We can no longer ignore the number of families that live on the precipice of poverty. The state, the business community and civil society must explore a true tripartite partnership to ensure social safety nets, retraining and skills upgrade and protection of the most vulnerable. But this must not be delinked from international cooperation where elements such as fair taxation, decent work, access to finance, and gender equity are governed. Only by ensuring synergies with domestic actions and global initiatives will transformational impact be achieved. 

One cannot delink the global recovery from multilateral cooperation. History has shown how in our most fragile times we have risen through a shared determination and willingness to do better and to be better. The reaction to the pandemic has confirmed we need to recommit to this principle and to multilateralism as the fairest and most effective way to do this.

*This article is drawn from Arancha González Laya‘s recent intervention at the event UNited for a People-Powered Recovery, organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS).

Photo credits: red feniks/Shutterstock.

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