We need a new narrative for the problems the world is facing

February 23, 2023
Photo: UNDP Moldova / Sevcic Dmitri

Richard Kozul-Wright is the Director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at UNCTAD in Geneva. In advance of his Kapuscinski Development Lecture, he spoke on what needs to shift in the global architecture to deal with a cascading set of international crises.

We've seen in the last couple of years how globalization has made many crises impossible to deal with within one country borders, but a rising mistrust amongst countries is making it harder and harder to work together. How is it possible that we can get to a stage where countries feel like they can collaborate to address these world issues?

Over the course of the last couple of years, everything seems to be happening very intensely. But the roots of this are clearly not in the current moment. They go back much further than that. It’s very important to have a narrative that understands that there are these underlying systemic pressures that have been mounting, really for decades, that lead to fragilities and vulnerabilities and asymmetries that don't require a big hit for them to become quite dangerous, not just within a particular region, but across a whole set of regions of the global economy.

I don't think we have the narrative yet to be able to deal with the kinds of problems we're facing. And we need a new narrative about the way in which these interdependencies and cascading forces are throwing up new challenges for the international community.

The usual kind of argument is that the old institutions that were created 75 years ago are somehow Jurassic in their nature and inappropriate for the current era. I think that's a little bit misleading. In some respects, we've lost some things from the original Bretton Woods design over the last 30 years that were actually very important. And we do need to go back to some of the original ideas of Bretton Woods if we're going to address these crisis. But we also know that the original model had big failings too, and if we're going to move ahead, we need to redesign certain elements.

There are also missing gaps that need to be filled, institutionally, if we're going to address these problems in the timeframe that we've set ourselves in the international community. The clock is ticking on the agenda 2030: there's a real urgency to the problem, but I don't think we can address it simply by improving what we have. There is a call for new institutions.

"There's a real urgency to the problem, but I don't think we can address it simply by improving what we have. There is a call for new institutions."

The time is indeed ticking. Is it possible in our current state to achieve these agendas?

Well, we have seen new institutions emerge. Not always at the global level, but the regional level and, particularly interestingly, amongst developing countries, where we’re seeing new institutions emerge quite suddenly. Look at what happened at last year’s COP: under political pressure, particularly the rich countries agreed that we need to have a new institutional architecture to deal with the problem of loss and damage. The pressures are such that I think there is a growing willingness to contemplate more radical shifts in the architecture than for any time since the global financial crisis.

Now, there's a warning, of course, because at the time of the global financial crisis, all the talk was “we need to do things very differently”. And in some respects, that didn't happen. So there is a bad precedent, which is something we should worry about. Many of the problems that caused the global financial crisis are still with us today, partly because we didn't deliver on the promises that were made back at the G20 about fundamental change in the architecture. So there are real reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic.

Do you think the new paradigm will still be the big organizational architecture or will we see something more on a local level?

I think there are two critical elements that need to be carefully thought through that underpin any sort of successful multilateral system, but come out of a more local agendas.

The issue of trust is imperative. We love to talk about a rules-based international order, which is slight misleading. There are many parts of the international economy where there are no rules. But even with a rules-based system, you can never have an effective system without other elements that are necessary for that to work in a smooth and inclusive way. One of them is trust. That's a real concern, because the system has hemorrhaged trust over the last few years. Not just during COVID, but before COVID. So regain rebuilding trust is critical.

I think the other one, of course, is voice. And the two go together. There has to be a feeling that if these problems are global, then you need voices from many quarters to address these problems in a way that does not polarize and is genuinely inclusive.

So the issues of voice and trust are incredibly important when it comes not only to the multilateral arena, but even the local and national arena. I think that is something we need to worry about, because on both of those criteria, there are reasons to believe that the last couple of decades have to some extent undermined both those necessary conditions.

You’ll be giving your KAPTalks lecture on the polycrisis and the challenges it's posing for inclusive and sustainable development, particularly for the international community, and the challenges that the current architecture is facing to deal with a new set of virulent and interdependent challenges.

We're looking for solutions, of course, to these problems still. And the more we hear from different communities about how they perceive these challenges, the better. So I look forward to presenting my views and getting some pushback or support either way.


Be part of the discussion and join his Kapuscinski Development Lecture at the University of Ljubljana live or online. For more info: https://bit.ly/KozulWright and register here.