Health and Healthcare Systems

Why we need international cooperation now more than ever

A staff takes a selfie in the flags alley at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, April 26, 2016.  REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - GF10000396206

'Most of us believe strongly in the power of working together to face the challenges of today and tomorrow.' Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Elizabeth Cousens
President and Chief Executive Officer, United Nations Foundation
Ilona Szabó de Carvalho
Co-founder and President, Igarape Institute
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the threat of climate change, have made global cooperation and its actors, like the United Nations, more important than ever.
  • A United Nations survey solicited inputs from people across virtually every sector in at least 193 countries.
  • The survey asked people from all walks of life about their priorities and possible solutions to the planet's most intractable challenges.

Even before the tumultuous arrival of COVID-19, many parts of the world were suffering from dangerous polarization and division. Bitter disagreements over what is true or not pose a real threat to stability everywhere. And yet surprisingly, around the world, it turns out that most people - regardless of their origin, gender or age - share common hopes and fears about the future. We are all, it seems, more aligned than we are led to believe. And most of us believe strongly in the power of working together to face the challenges of today and tomorrow. That's just one of the takeaways from a striking new initiative led by the United Nations.

Have you read?

Amid all the global tumult and turmoil, the United Nations just hosted a massive conversation about the state of the world, launched as part of the organization's 75th anniversary. Between January and August 2020, the United Nations solicited inputs from people across virtually every sector in at least 193 countries. The survey asked people from all walks of life about their priorities and possible solutions to the planet's most intractable challenges. One of the single biggest concerns was climate change and the importance of mustering global consensus and cooperation to tackle it.

Notwithstanding the recent surge in nationalism and declining support for multilateralism, most people want more global cooperation, not less. Almost 9 in 10 respondents to the United Nations survey believe that international collaboration is vital to tackle contemporary challenges. Roughly three quarters of them also believe that the United Nations should lead the charge. That said, there is hope for a more diverse form of multilateralism - one that accounts for female, youth and indigenous voices, alongside the private sector and city leaders. And youth voices around the world are particularly optimistic about the promise of international cooperation.

While overall public support for the United Nations remains strong - six in 10 people say that the organization has made the world a better place - the organization has work to do to connect its efforts more directly to the individual experience. Over half of all respondents feel that the United Nations is remote from their lives. Many are not entirely sure what the organization does. While the United Nations Charter begins with the words "we the peoples", a considerable part of the public feels alienated from institutions in general, which makes it easier for populists to cynically disregard them. There is, in all of this, a risk that global mistrust jeopardizes our shared future.

Yet there are signs that popular support for global cooperation and the United Nations has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The viral outbreak has not only exposed the fragilities and failures of the international system - it has also clarified the essential importance of greater cooperation. With political and economic systems facing deep uncertainties and global supply chains increasingly fragmented, there is an opportunity to re-imagine and reset global partnerships. This is all the more important because COVID-19 is just the warmup to the big challenge: climate change.

Virtually all respondents to the UN survey agreed that tackling the vulnerabilities exacerbated by COVID-19 are the most urgent priority. Tackling inequalities will be especially vital, including improving access to basic services, especially water, sanitation, health and education. They also feel that greater solidarity and shared support should be directed toward those places hardest hit by the pandemic. Over 72% of all respondents believe access to healthcare will be the same or better in the next 25 years.

As for the most urgent future challenges, climate change is the overwhelming priority. It is also what most people feel should be the United Nations’ principal concern moving forward. There is widespread anxiety about the impacts of climate change, and deep worries that environmental conditions are set to worsen in the coming years. These findings are echoed in countless scientific studies, as well as the surge of warming temperatures, forest fires, melting glaciers and breathtaking decline in biodiversity.

Another profound area of consensus is that the United Nations must be more inclusive in how it fosters global cooperation. The latest round of consultations are a positive expression of this, consisting of over 1,000 dialogues across 82 countries. Respondents urged member states to proactively engage women, youth and vulnerable groups in decision-making. Suggestions ranged from the reform of the Security Council to the appointment of a high-level civil society focal point at the United Nations. As ever, the problem is not a lack of ideas, but rather the middling levels of political will to make the United Nations more accessible, inclusive, and transparent, something the UN Secretary-General himself has advocated for when calling for a more inclusive multilateralism.

This week, world leaders will come together virtually to commemorate this anniversary and to hopefully forge consensus about the value of working together and the need for more stepped-up international cooperation. This includes in 12 agreed areas that demand an all-hands-on-deck effort, like committing to tackling inequalities, delivering on climate action, and being better prepared to prevent and respond to crises. The ideas generated by the United Nations global listening tour will be an important foundation for building solutions and partners. The UN Secretary-General sees these views from 'we the peoples' as critical to forging a new global deal and social compact that is fairer and more responsive for all.

While the world enters a turbulent and volatile new phase, global public opinion provides some grounds for optimism about the future. Despite the headlines to the contrary, most people are preoccupied by the same concerns and express shared aspirations. There also continues to be a very real and genuine commitment to the values of the United Nations, and its mission to build a more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

Their leaders need to listen.

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