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A second chance for global development

/ 05:12 AM October 16, 2021

GENEVA — Second chances are not common in this world, but one is arriving now. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested governments’ responsiveness and the resilience of economic systems everywhere, and changed social behavior and personal habits in previously unthinkable ways. There has also been cause for genuine hope amid the suffering. The dedication of essential workers has been inspiring, while the global scientific community has harnessed the power of collaborative research and public money to develop safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines at breakneck speed.

A global economic recovery began in the second half of 2020, as countries found less draconian ways to manage the pandemic’s health risks and launched vaccination programs. Global growth is expected to reach 5.3 percent this year, the highest rate in almost a half-century. But the outlook beyond 2021 is uncertain, given disparities in countries’ financial resources, the prospect of new coronavirus variants, and highly uneven vaccination rates.

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A return to the pre-pandemic policy paradigm, which delivered the weakest decade of global growth since 1945, would be a disaster. This is especially true for developing countries, where the economic damage caused by COVID-19 has exceeded that resulting from the global financial crisis a decade ago—in some cases by a considerable margin.

The new US administration’s backing for the recent $650 billion allocation of International Monetary Fund special drawing rights (SDRs), as well as for a global minimum corporate tax rate and a waiver of COVID-19 vaccine-related intellectual property rights, suggests a possible renewal of multilateralism. Progress will depend on improved policy coordination among major economies as they push to maintain the recovery’s momentum, build resilience against future shocks, and address the increasingly urgent climate crisis. But better coordination will not be enough to build back better. Above all, developing countries need renewed international support. Many of them face a spiraling public-health crisis owing to the pandemic, even as they struggle with an increasing debt burden and face the prospect of a lost decade of economic growth.

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High-income countries’ donation or on-lending of unused SDRs, including a larger chunk of the recent $650-billion allocation, could help fund developing countries’ efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Despite recent setbacks, UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently emphasized that “we have the knowledge, the science, the technology, and the resources” to get the SDGs back on track. “What we need is unity of purpose, effective leadership from all sectors, and urgent, ambitious action.”

The US Marshall Plan that enabled Europe to rebuild after World War II has rightly been evoked as a blueprint for such efforts. But what is missing today is a bold, human-centered narrative that abandons outdated free-market tropes and instead connects shared global policy challenges to improvements in the everyday lives of people, whether they live in Bogotá, Berlin, Bamako, Busan, or Boston.

That implies creating more jobs that guarantee a secure future for working people and their families. It means not only expanding fiscal space but also ensuring that the taxes people pay result in adequate public services and social protection. Besides responsible sovereign borrowing, policymakers should ensure that the debts people acquire to put a roof over their heads or send their children to school are not a lifelong burden. Lastly, governments must not only price carbon appropriately but also preserve the natural environment for future generations.

Forty years ago, the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s first Trade and Development Report called for a new paradigm “to take explicit account of the fact that issues concerning the management of the world economy, on the one hand, and long-term development objectives on the other, are intermingled.” Instead, policymakers have since placed far too much faith in market forces to make that connection. This approach has failed. Worse, the corrosion of public services, state capture by special interests, and deregulation of labor markets over the last four decades have taken their toll on citizens’ trust in their political representatives.

Today, building back better hinges on the emergence of a new policy paradigm—this time, to help guide a just transition to a decarbonized world. The crucial question is whether governments will adopt the necessary measures together. If they act separately, this crisis will prove to be merely another missed opportunity. Project Syndicate

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Rebeca Grynspan is a former vice president of Costa Rica. She is secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

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