One governance challenge, three vaccines

April 21, 2020

COVID-19 and its social distancing measures are exposing new governance and social cohesion challenges. Photo: UNDP Bolivia

COVID-19 presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to rectify and make societies more inclusive, efficient, and with higher levels of resilience at individual and institutional levels. Recovery is about effective governance and requires a strong component of institutional transformation for it to be effective, based on interaction with citizens, managed with transparency and adjusted to the rule of law.

Citizens will be hungry and angry at the same time. Today it is estimated that 30 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean could fall into poverty due to needed COVID19 response measures. This exemplifies the fragility of growth and governance, and at the same time poses a great risk to social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.

Governance is the enabling process of opportunities for development. Today, this opportunity is exogenous; its response requires governance that fosters agreements for institutional transformations and creates conditions where recovery means that in future stay-at-home policies, institutions continue to function. Where disruption is minimized.

Only a month ago, I was arguing that Latin America and the Caribbean was facing five structural governance challenges that will define the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development during this decade. These challenges are related to structural deficits that with the rise of social media are becoming evident and trigger social, economic and political tensions and social protests. These challenges are:

1.    Effective governance to enable the generation of equitable opportunities

2.    Changing rule of the game (eg. policies) to reduce inequalities

3.    Institutional transformations for digital solutions

4.    Tolerance to human rights

5.    Peaceful coexistence and citizen security

But suddenly, an invisible but vicious virus has changed that argument upside down. It has made it spin and turned the reality to one realization. Life is frail and our health is fragile. If we had thought that consolidating societies that are inclusive, resilient and efficient means lifting people out of poverty, the emerging realization is that it will be a monumental task ahead. 

For middle-income economies, struggling to become middle-class societies, like those in Latin America and the Caribbean, governance turns out to be the most relevant instrument for recovery. This means the creation of opportunities for people to forge their destinies and collaborate. Governance is the process by which opportunities are generated (their application is linked to the practice of democracy as well as to political and civil rights that lead to sustainable development).

COVID-19 is exposing inequalities in new dimensions. While the virus is truly democratic as it affects us all irrespective of our race, ethnicity, gender or background; the economic and social consequences of its impact are nothing but egalitarian, as they are different and harsher on the most vulnerable. Resilience needs a new name as we are about to start a recession, it will bring people back into poverty and enhance the citizens´ distrust (an explosive mix).

COVID-19 and its social distancing measures are exposing new governance and social cohesion challenges. The responsibility to respond to the pandemic heavily relies on the State, which as an institution is facing a crisis of legitimacy of trust. But citizens are now looking up to the State to provide health services, relief, protection, and even comfort in this moment of uncertainty. The State is also faced with the dangers of misinformation and “fake news” in greater proportions. And in the post-pandemic recovery phases, the State will be tasked again to “build back better” in the jargon of recovery operations. This means the State will need to be strengthened to be more adaptable, to bring about institutional transformations and to transition from analog responses to provided digital solutions.

So, the five governance challenges thought of earlier, remain valid, but on top of them, a more immediate and pressing one has taken precedence. To deal with this new challenge we are nowadays in need of three vaccines:

  1. A vaccine (or a medical treatment) against the COVID-19, so people stop dying in the proportions they are now doing, and the spread of contagion is contained. We must learn to cohabit with the virus
  2. A vaccine against misinformation and “fake news”, we have already seen information that is not true and intended to confuse and bring fear to populations. This misinformation is mostly used as political tool to discredit the State, its institutions and leaders. 
  3. A vaccine for the State and public institutions in the sense they need to respond with higher efficiency levels in their provision of public services. And on top of that, States need to do this with greater transparency and co-creation to regain the trust and legitimancy of citizens.

During the pandemic, the public health system has the full weight of the response, but also the public institutions to ensure law and order are maintained and the rule of law prevails. In post-pandemic periods, it will be a huge challenge to reestablish core government functionality and the strengthening of the provision of public services, including administrative and justice.

UNDP´s approach to COVID 19 is three-pronged. It is about preparedness, response, and recovery. Governance has a key role to play in these three stages. To forge accords among actors to prepare, to implement response plans and strategies that are inclusive and under the axis of the rule of law. But most importantly, to ensure agreements consider a recovery that looks at ensuring institutions keep functioning, relief assistance reaches where it is most needed and peace and social cohesion can be strengthened. A new normal is about to start and the State needs to be prepared with effective governance strategies.