COVID-19 shows why we need multilateralism more than ever

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Maria-Helena André, Director, ILO Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV)

It is the nature of crises to expose new faults in a system or widen existing ones. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception to this, and as it has taken hold some countries have been driven to look inwards for solutions. This is not just a result of some groups exploiting domestic political opportunities. We must accept that general discontent with the multilateral system may have played a role in the idea that policy goals are best advanced through unilateral action, rather than collective efforts.

The trend is particularly ironic in the case of COVID-19, because a virus by its nature knows no geographic boundaries and recognizes no national sovereignty. However, it is exceptionally good at revealing the inherent weaknesses of each individual countries’ social and economic systems, and their ability to respond. It also challenges the capacity of individual multilateral agencies, as well as the collective power of the multilateral system to come together and deliver as one when under pressure.

COVID-19 should – and can – remind us why international institutions like the ILO were created. The particular relevance of the ILO is clear from the principles outlined in the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work, agreed in 2019, 100 years after the Organization’s foundation. The preamble states that, “persistent poverty, inequalities and injustices, conflict, disasters and other humanitarian emergencies in many parts of the world constitute a threat to those advances and to securing shared prosperity and decent work for all.”

The Declaration calls for better engagement and cooperation within the multilateral system, to strength policy coherence. It reaffirms that decent work is vital for sustainable development, including addressing income inequality, ending poverty, and paying special attention to places affected by conflict, disaster and other forms of humanitarian emergency.

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ILO

Importantly, it also reminds us that, “the failure of any country to adopt humane conditions of labour is more than ever an obstacle to progress in all other countries.” This lesson on the futility of isolationism has been starkly reiterated by COVID-19.

Looking at a broader canvas, the virus has also reinvigorated the political and pragmatic imperative for the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Agenda 2030. It has confirmed that all the SDGs are important to fast-track progress for people and planet, but COVID-19 is particularly consequential for some:

  • Goal 3: Good health and wellbeing, including investments in quality and universal access to health care.
  • Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation for all.
  • Goal 4: Quality and inclusive public education with adequate infrastructure including retraining, reskilling and life-long learning.
  • Goal 8: Decent work and sustainable economic growth including rights at work, adequate occupational health measures, strong and inclusive social dialogue and social protection systems, decent wages, etc.

The COVID-19 pandemic has re-emphasized the importance of a multilateral approach to sustainable development, as well as the importance of combining social, economic and environmental priorities. It has also confirmed the reality of the interconnectedness of different national economies – regardless of whether niche political ideologies choose to recognize this – and that uncoordinated national actions will not be effective in minimizing the virus’ impact or eradicating it all together.

The most immediate and severe components of this crisis may end soon, but its consequences, for people, economies and our planet, will be with us for a long time. There will be a need for a strategic rebuilding of social and economic systems, including restoring the confidence of citizens, especially the most vulnerable, in those structures ability to deliver. In other words, “to build better back”. However, this is only likely to be possible with a multilateral approach, based on the principles of social justice and solidarity that leave no one behind!

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