Declaring war on the polycrisis

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Wednesday 8 Feb 2023

What is the way out of the polycrisis that is currently gripping the world as humanity reaches an ominous new watershed of only 90 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock?


In his annual address to the UN General Assembly on his work priorities for the new year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred to a measure developed in 1947 by a group of scientists, among whom was Albert Einstein, to gauge how close humankind is to extinction as a result of its actions. 

The Doomsday Clock, as the measure is called, is periodically updated by a group of scientists that have included 40 Nobel Prize laureates and issue a bulletin analysing such global threats as nuclear war and climate change.

In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands on this symbolic clock forward to an unprecedented 90 seconds to midnight. To illustrate what this signifies, at the end of the Cold War in 1991 and after the US and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the scientists set the clock back to 17 minutes to midnight. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2021, the clock stood at 100 seconds to midnight.  

We are living in a world gripped by polycrisis, to use the current term for the simultaneous occurrence of multiple, ongoing, complex and intertwining crises. 

The list includes climate change, pandemics and their economic repercussions such as mounting poverty rates and income disparities between and within countries, and geopolitical conflicts that destroy trust between nations and hamper international cooperation. 

Despite the existence of feasible technical solutions to end or manage these crises, and the financial and technological means to execute such plans, the political will to do so is mournfully absent. Instead, narrow political biases and short term interests continue to work towards global destruction and further human misery.  

In his recent address to the UN General Assembly on priorities for 2023, the UN secretary general identified seven priorities that provided “a roadmap out of the dead end.” He described these priorities as human rights in the broadest sense, listing them as follows.


THE RIGHT TO PEACE: This includes peace in Ukraine, Palestine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Haiti and elsewhere in the world. Guterres pointed out that two billion people now live in countries affected by conflict and humanitarian crises.


SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC RIGHTS AND THE RIGHT TO DEVELOPMENT: This entails fighting the growth of extreme poverty at a time when “the richest one per cent have captured almost half of all new wealth over the past decade.” 

Achieving this end requires a comprehensive approach to dealing with the bane of rising international debt and the huge costs the developing countries are forced to sustain in order to take out, repay, and service debts. As Guterres explained, what is needed is urgent reform of the international economic and financial system. The architecture of this is skewed and deeply flawed, and the structure of the system, inclusive of the main international financial institutions that emerged from Bretton Woods after World War II, must be overhauled. Without rapid, comprehensive action towards this end, it will be impossible to realise the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the UN announced in 2015. 

A hundred developing countries and emerging markets are crippled by debt crises of varying degrees of severity at present. Logic dictates that preventing the ills of debt should take precedence over the yet-to-be realised benefits of new financing for development. How could the yet-to-be realised benefits of the eventual fulfilment of funding pledges and initiatives and the trickles of new funds outweigh the current waste of the potential of countries that are reeling under the burdens of foreign debt, grossly unfair terms, successive interest rate hikes, and the declining values of local currencies due to international shocks or poor local fiscal and monetary policies?  

The G-20 group of nations would do well to embrace the UN call for financing the proposed “sustainable development accelerator” to support the development aspirations of the countries of the Global South. It would be better yet if they simultaneously launched an integrated framework for remedying the debt syndrome and preventing the developing nations from stumbling into the abyss of debt traps.


THE RIGHT TO A CLEAN, HEALTHY, AND SUSTAINABLE ENVIRONMENT: This means real commitments to meeting the aims of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and subsequent pledges and the resolutions of successive UN COP Conferences on climate change. It includes the last UN COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh in November, which succeeded in reaching a historic agreement on a mechanism to help the developing nations cope with the loss and damage they have sustained as a result of climate change. As the UN secretary general said, it is time for the developed nations to “make good on the $100 billion promise to the developing countries” and to “finish the job and deliver on the loss and damage fund agreed in Sharm El-Sheikh.” 

The Sharm El-Sheikh conference also identified the priorities for international action in five areas of climate adaptation. It devised mechanisms for mobilising the funding for climate action projects, mechanisms that promise to foster unprecedented levels of collaboration between private sector entities, the UNs regional economic bodies, and the investment banking sector. 

In fact, the COP27 produced a list of feasible projects that merit investment and facilitated financing, which is something different from loans. As I have previously written in this space, it is important to end the over-dependence on loans for climate projects. The remedy for the climate crisis has three components: funding, technology, and will. Either they come together in a comprehensive way or the crisis will persist.


RESPECT FOR DIVERSITY AND THE UNIVERSALITY OF CULTURAL RIGHTS: Here, too, the world has been moving in the opposite direction and towards the flagrant abuse and negation of this rights. Nothing has been more responsible for movement in this direction than the forces that fuel conflict, civil strife, and terrorism. Untold numbers of minority populations have been forced to pay the price for the types of violence that tear societies apart with their lives or as displaced persons and refugees. The trend has driven up security costs, obstructed peaceful solutions to international and domestic disputes, and destroyed prospects for development and progress.


THE RIGHT TO FULL GENDER EQUALITY: This is the fifth UN Sustainable Development Goal, but many developing nations are moving away from it rather than towards it. The more they suffer economic shocks and deterioration, the more women and girls become the foremost victims of deprivation of education, healthcare, work and equitable wages. “At the current rate, it could take 286 years for women to achieve the same legal status as men,” Guterres said. 


CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS AS THE BASIS OF INCLUSIVE SOCIETIES: Not only has repression increased, but the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as a cover for violations of political and civil rights, a trend that brought a 50 per cent increase in the number of journalists and media workers killed last year. 

The UN secretary general has launched a Call to Action for Human Rights in order to promote the more systematic participation of civil society in the UNs work to advance fundamental freedoms and protect civic space. The UN is simultaneously strengthening support for the development of laws and policies that protect civil rights and improve government practices in this regard. 


THE RIGHTS OF FUTURE GENERATIONS: The negative progress we are seeing in the six aforementioned areas and their associated rights detract from the opportunities of future generations for a better life. 

What we see as tension and hardship in many places is to young people a decline in their chances for a standard of living and mode of life at least equivalent to that enjoyed by their parents. This is just as frustrating for parents who find it hard to provide their children with the minimum requirements for a dignified life. 

This problem is shaping the agenda of next years Future Summit, which will identify action priorities commensurate with the demands of the digital age, the prohibition of weapons of mass destruction, and good governance. The summit will build on the results of three other summits that will be held in September 2023 on sustainable development, climate change and funding.

If these efforts are to bear fruit, there has to be an environment conducive to international cooperation, which is simply not obtainable in the current climate of warfare and conflict. 

I have spoken to representatives of both sides of the war in Ukraine and what most struck me was that both absolved themselves of all responsibility for the disastrous repercussions of the war and, above all, for how it has aggravated poverty, debt and economic straits in the developing nations. 

Each side will rush to point out that grain and fertiliser prices and quantities have returned to their pre-war levels, as if to say “dont bother us with other peoples economic, political and social problems. Leave us in peace to make war.” 

I am reminded of US writer Barbara Tuchmans classic work the “Guns of August.” This is about World War I, which has been famously described as the war that no one wanted or expected but that happened regardless. 

Of the 70 million young men that fought in that war, nine million died and other seven million civilians were killed. Tens of millions sustained chronic injuries. The war led to other massacres as well as pandemics that killed several times as many innocent people. There were opportunities to end the war, but the leaders of the great powers at the time were unable to summon up the resolve to solve their disputes peacefully. 

Wars of this sort occur because those who start them think they will emerge the victor. But in the end, all sides emerge as losers, and those who were never a party to the conflict to begin with, suffer enormous losses as well.

As long as there is a thirst for war, why not make it a war against extreme poverty, which is on the rise again worldwide? Or how about a war against climate change, which threatens the life and well-being of every person on the planet, or a war to prevent the spread of contagious diseases and insufficient preparations for the next pandemic? 

We could also make war against the debt crisis and inflation, which are taking food away from the destitute and eroding the incomes of the middle classes, or a war against depriving people of opportunities for education, a decent job, a dignified life and other inherent rights that are being trampled on. 

These are the types of legitimate wars that truly merit the appeal to “leave us to fight in peace.”

This article also appears in Arabic in Wednesday’s edition of Asharq Al-Awsat.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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