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UN General Assembly: Global leaders need to step up this time around

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Picture: Timothy A. Clary/AFP

By Isobel Frye

The 77th General Assembly of the United Nations meeting began in New York on 13 September.

How committed are world leaders to their commitments to make the world a better place? They could use this high-level opportunity to commit to establish a Global Social Protection Fund to practically meet at least four Sustainable Development Goals, but will they?

Each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are important, and they are interconnected.

That means that working to meet one Goal can take states further towards meeting multiple goals.

The Secretary- General’s 2022 progress report on meeting the SDGs that he will present to the UN General Assembly indicate that progress on defeating poverty (Goal 1), hunger (Goal 2) and inequality (Goal 10), have been badly affected by Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine these are structural pre-existing challenges.

SDG 17 provides for financing mechanisms from wealthy countries to assist meeting o the Goals by poorer countries. Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Olivier de Schutter, proposed the establishment of a Global Fund for Social Protection last year. Such a Fund would meet at least four of the SDGs. It is time leaders took concrete action, and this Fund seems to be a perfect fit.

Global headlines talk daily of the unaffordable cost of living with food and energy inflation soaring beyond the means of ordinary people. The war in Ukraine is often blamed for this, as Covid-19 was blamed before that for rises in poverty and inequality. But it is important not to be distracted by today’s crisis and instead recognise the underlying structural drivers. The Secretary- General, Antonio Guterres, acknowledged this in his 13 September press conference which set out the priorities for 2022’s General Assembly.

Picture: Timothy A. Clary / AFP – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 20, 2022.

Guterres noted that hunger was in fact rising globally before Covid-19, and has ‘never recovered’.

But due to high levels of poverty and indicative of the inequalities between countries is the fact that most developing countries don’t have the fiscal space to deal with poverty and hunger domestically.

And yet the aim of the SDGs was to create a global accountability to deal with the challenges because of the global interconnectedness. But rich countries are failing in this, and in the words of Guterres, ‘(T)he solidarity envisioned in the United Nations Charter is being devoured by the acids of nationalism and self-interest… a shocking disregard for the poorest and most vulnerable in our world.’

Progress in meeting the SDGs is, according to Guterres’s report, terrible. Aggravated by the pandemic and war, extreme poverty has increased for the first time since 1990. And poverty has increased far more dramatically in developing countries, where pre-pandemic achievements in reducing poverty have been reversed by about 8 years.

Hunger and stunting has increased dramatically, with permanent results.

Covid-19 also increased inequalities within as well as between countries. Returns on wealth increased the incomes of the wealthy, while incomes for people dependent on salaried work declined significantly. In Southern Africa, these income gaps are particularly stark. Recent ILO data shows for instance that South Africa has a significantly higher rate of employed and self- employed people in extreme and moderate poverty than Latin America, China, Eastern Europe and other upper middle- income countries.

Not only is the rate of working poverty higher, while each of these other data points significantly reduced their levels of working poor between 2000 and 2019, levels of working poverty increased in South Africa between 2010 and 2019. Creating jobs won’t in itself reduce poverty, hunger and inequality.

So how can the UN General Assembly assist?

Target 1.3 of SDG 1 commits governments to Implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including floors, and by 2030 achieve substantial coverage of the poor and the vulnerable.

According to the Secretary- General’s 2022 report, before the pandemic only 47% of people globally were covered by a social protection benefit, but to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, more than 1700 short term cash grant programmes were introduced in 209 countries or territories. Namibia and South Africa were amongst those countries. The challenge is that the need is longer lasting.

So why are we not seeing more permanent programmes being rolled out in as required by Target 1.3? According to the Senior Director for the UN Foundation Sustainable Development Initiatives, Julie Garfieldt Kofoed, the two reasons are accountability and financing.

SDG 17 requires financing partnerships to meet the Goals. In 2021, net official development assistance flows were just 0.33 % of the Development Assistance Committee donors’ combined gross national income (GNI), well below the target of 0.7 %.

One way to close this gap and to finance stronger cash transfer programmes to developing countries would be to implement the proposed Global Fund for Social Protection as advocated in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights submitted to the UN Human Rights Council last year.

The Report sets out very clearly that social security is not only a global human right, but it has economic benefits too. It must be seen as an investment. According to the Report: ‘(T)he basic causality chains are simple enough. Social protection plays a stabilizing role in times of economic downturn because of its poverty-alleviation impacts and its ability to raise consumption levels of low- income households. Social protection contributes to a more competitive economy and has significant multiplier effects. Providing income support to people throughout their lives is therefore not only a human rights obligation. It makes economic sense as well.’

As a solution to the low levels of funding and financing for social security programmes, the Report recommends the establishment of a global fund for social protection similar to the highly successful Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Guterres said in his 13 September press conference: ‘Our world is blighted by war, battered by climate chaos, scarred by hate, and shamed by poverty, hunger, and inequality.’ A commitment by member States to establish a Global Fund for Social Protection, would remove their ongoing shaming by poverty, hunger and inequality.

Frye is director of the Social Policy Initiative

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