COVID-19 Immunisation: Preparing for the Perfect Handoff

As the world mobilises to develop a vaccine, some countries will struggle to ensure their citizens are protected against COVID-19 – unless work starts to prepare them now.

Those most at risk of being left behind? The poorest and most fragile countries. And those with weak institutions and poor public health infrastructure.

The great divide of the 2020s could be between the vaccinated and those denied access to immunisation. Beyond the obvious health implications, countries risk finding themselves cut off from the rest of the world, as richer and more stable countries protect themselves from secondary epidemics.

Dr Emma Hannay is a global health consultant and Victoria Collis is a public service delivery consultant

The global race to create a COVID-19 vaccine is well underway. Teams in the USA and China have already reached the first big milestone of Phase 1 clinical trials on humans, with others hard on their heels in Germany, the UK, and Australia. It’s going to take 18 months or so, and likely cost between $200 and $500 million, but the chances of a successful vaccine are high.

Continue reading

More on the Coronavirus and Slums

A few days ago on Global Dashboard, Mark Weston called for urgent action to respond to the needs of people living in slums during the coronavirus pandemic. The post has gone viral on Facebook, as interest in the subject has begun to intensify.

The Institute for Development Studies published this detailed briefing outlining the challenges facing those working to limit the virus’s impact in informal settlements, and suggesting a number of possible solutions. Clear information and advice, the authors argue, are critical for achieving buy-in to policies from slum residents. Drawing on the lessons of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, moreover, they highlight the need to collaborate with local residents to ensure that stigma doesn’t accelerate the virus’s spread.

In South Africa, the NGO IBP and others have produced this widely-shared flyer to show people living in informal settlements how to use shared taps and toilets without increasing their risk of COVID-19 infection. Another NGO, Slum Dwellers International, is working across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to help prepare communities for the virus.

Mark’s piece was picked up by South Africa’s leading news website, the Mail & Guardian. Last night he was interviewed on Cape Town’s Cape Talk Radio. While in some ways “African countries have been ahead of the game” in bringing in COVID-19 containment measures, he warned that “it will be dangerous if the countries of the Global South imitate those of the Global North” in their approach:

“Countries like South Africa have to develop their own policies, and even within South Africa you will need to have different policies for different informal settlements.”

Mark also made the point that responses in informal settlements will be most effective if they are community-led, with governments playing a key supporting role:

“The answers are going to come from within communities themselves. The community is the first line of defence, but governments can’t just wash their hands of this. They need to give communities what they need, things that they can’t access themselves.”

The podcast of the interview is available here. We hope the momentum will continue to build in the coming days and weeks.

The future of the UN is revealed!

Each year, the Austrian Ministry of Defense publishes a collection of predictions by various experts on upcoming international developments.  This year, I contributed my thoughts on what will happen to/at the United Nations in 2018.  As it is otherwise only available in German, here is an English version (don’t blame me if it’s all wrong):

2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations.  The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council.  UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.

The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang.  China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation.  But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions.  If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.

The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal.  The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018.  There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.

The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.

The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria.  However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.

UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.

Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high.  UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.

In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila.   The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.

The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations.  A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia.  While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.

In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.

Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018.  The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel.  While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.

A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration.  UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018.  This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.

There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system.  Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures.  Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.

One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.

Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018.  Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.

China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights.  Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.

There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down.  Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies.  She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington.  President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.

Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea.  The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.

The Vancouver summit on UN peacekeeping

This week, defense ministers are meeting in Vancouver to talk about UN peacekeeping.  This follows a conference hosted by President Obama on UN operations in New York in 2015 and a follow-up event in London last year.  The idea is that countries with advanced military capacities that would otherwise stay away from blue helmet commitments will pledge units to the UN.  In 2015, for example, David Cameron promised to send British personnel to Somalia and South Sudan.  Despite a bit of a wobble around Brexit, the UK has followed through on both.

In August, Japan hosted a preparatory meeting on training and capacity-building needs for peace operations in Tokyo.  Paul Williams and I wrote a background paper — you can read it at the link below.  We’ll see if any of our ideas get picked up in Vancouver (I’ll report back if they do).

Tokyo PKO Prep Meeting Background Paper

Book review: Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”

Book review

If you’ve ever written a book about Guinea-Bissau, you will know that popular interest in this remote little West African country is scant. Your oeuvre is unlikely to be spotted flying off the shelves of WHSmiths, even less likely to feature prominently on airport bookshops’ lists of Great Holiday Reads. The few journalists who write about the place trot out the old saw about no president having completed his term in office, and then move on to less somnolent parts of the continent.

But Guinea-Bissau, as a few eminent Africanists have noticed, provides an instructive example of how the survival into the post-colonial era of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s extractive political and economic institutions continues to impede Africa’s development half a century after independence. Among these Africanists is one of the most brilliant of them all, Patrick Chabal, whose Africa Works is an essential read for anyone trying to understand how and why so many of the continent’s Big Men have endured in power for so long. Chabal also wrote extensively on Guinea-Bissau, including a biography of one of the Big Men’s nemeses, Amílcar Cabral, who after leading his country to independence from Portugal would become another of Africa’s doomed figures of hope.

Patrick Chabal died before his final work could be completed. But ‘Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”’, co-edited with another Guinea-Bissau enthusiast Toby Green, is a worthy handing over of the baton (disclosure: Toby kindly reviewed and provided a blurb for my own, less academically rigorous book on the country). The book’s ten chapters, written by an assortment of academics from Guinea-Bissau, its diaspora and elsewhere, provide a thorough and clearly argued analysis of why the country remains one of the poorest in the world four decades after shrugging off the colonial yoke; of why it has been subjected to such venal leaders (most notoriously the thuggish Nino Vieira); and of how foreign meddling during and after colonialism contributed to the hollowing out of the institutions of government, exacerbated local ethnic and religious divides, and weakened this primarily agricultural society’s resilience. Continue reading

Who’s going to pay for the SDGs?

In July, Addis Ababa will host a crucial summit on financing for development. If September’s summit on sustainable development goals (SDGs) in New York is when governments will decide what they want to achieve on poverty and sustainability by 2030, Addis is where they must set out how they will do so.

There’s much to do, with a bewildering array of potential issues on the table – aid, trade, tax, the private sector, climate, sustainability and technology transfer are all possible focus areas – and too little clarity on what success would look like on each. Politicians are not yet feeling pressure to make serious offers.

Yet, if Addis disappoints, the fallout could be extensive. Prospects for achieving the SDGs – such as ending poverty by 2030 – would dim significantly. Frustration among developing countries could feed in to the September summit and the December climate summit, threatening a cascading failure that could damage prospects for international cooperation on defining global issues for a decade.

How can we avoid this scenario and ensure that Addis is a landmark?

First, there needs to be a clearer narrative on what the summit is for, that focuses on three or four core areas. At least one of these needs to be about politicalimpact, with a big story that leads the next day’s news agenda. In practice, this probably has to be about aid – even though it now accounts for only around a 10th of development finance.

Timetables for countries to give 0.7% of national income to aid are unlikely to work, given past promises: in 2005, 16 countries pledged to meet 0.7% by 2015, but only five have delivered. A pledge to give at least half of all aid to least developed countries, on the other hand, may cut more ice – but the politics look tough.

Other contenders could include a major push on addressing the “financing gap” faced by many middle-income countries, through scaling up official financing other than aid. And a strong focus on financing highly effective cash transfer schemes in lower income countries would go a long way towards ending poverty.

The Addis outcome could also help key “work in progress” agendas with longer term development impact.

One area where there’s plenty of buzz is the contribution the private sector can make – for instance, through scaling up foreign direct investment (the single biggest source of development finance), new public-private partnerships, or in key sectors like infrastructure. Less clear, though, is exactly how Addis may contribute.

Instead, a better candidate may be international tax cooperation – the most important thing that rich countries can do to help developing countries mobilise their own resources.

One step would be to spend more aid on developing countries’ tax administration efforts – an area with breathtaking rates of return. Faster progress on recovery of stolen assets from abroad is another priority for many developing countries, as is access to the automatic exchange of tax information that G8 and G20 countries have already agreed among themselves.

Above all, Addis could help close tax loopholes that allow multinational companies to report profits in tax havens – rather than where their workforces, assets or sales are. Country by country reporting requirements would be one important step; a unitary tax system would be even better.

Addis could put emerging issues on the development map by including these in the outcome document – even if the time is not yet ripe for agreeing concrete actions. It could put down a marker on the need to do more to tackle inequality, echoing the SDGs’ emphasis on the issue. Or, it could flag up the potential wins that would result from fair shares for developing countries in any future global emissions budget.

Most of all, Addis needs more agenda-setters to help its Norwegian and Guyananco-facilitators, and Ethiopian hosts, to champion its potential. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim could both do more. Germany and Turkey, hosts of this year’s G7 and G20 summits, could be key players too.

Addis needs more voices to make the moral case for why countries need to raise their game. Civil society has a crucial role here. And it may be that Pope Francis emerges as a leader, given his commitment to justice – and the fact that a papal encyclical on climate and development is expected soon.

Perhaps most of all, the summit will depend on commitments from finance ministers to attend (as IMF head Christine Lagarde has already done). They, far more than development ministers, have the power to unlock real progress.

Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading