Thought Leadership in Turbulent Times

T20 Saudi Arabia Webinar

Posted May 10, 2020

KSA UNDP's RR #T20Webinar "COVID-19: Thought Leadership in Turbulent Times"

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to join you today. Let me thank my friends at KAPSARC for inviting me to deliver this keynote address on behalf of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

After 25 years in the UN system and with many years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Palestine, and Uganda, I truly thought I had seen it all. COVID 19 has shaken all of us to the bone. The world has literally stopped on so many fronts.

A couple of years ago I was working in the Horn of Africa and I recall so many farmers and pastoralists saying, ‘normally, we have rain now…normally, the soil would be fertile. Normally, our herds of camels and goats would be healthy…’ 

But that notion of NORMAL had not existed for years in the Horn due to successive drought and subsequent floods. People like to hang on to the past --- to seemingly better days.

Globally, collectively, we are in that same situation. There is NO normal to go back to. We cannot return to business as usual after COVID.

The plight of millions of the destitute, of refugees, of displaced persons, of homeless, of the hungry, of those caught in war, have marched on without pause. Their situations have gotten considerably worse.

This is a moment for change and while immensely stressful and complex, opportunities are emerging and it is no surprise that the community of Think Tanks brought together today under the leadership of KAPSARC and the T20 will be instrumental in that change!

But where will they fit? How can Think Tanks contribute as we move from Crisis to Stabilization?

Let me back up a bit and describe where the UN sits in all of this:

I am quite proud to inform you that the United Nations family has come together to present a plan of action called “Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19”. In it the UN Secretary-General calls for a large-scale, coordinated, comprehensive multilateral response that amounts to at least 10 per cent of global GDP. All in all, this unprecedented crisis hits weaker countries more severely. The IMF estimates that 2.5 trillion USD are needed globally to tackle this challenge.

The program of the UN has 5 critical workstreams:

1. ensuring that essential health services are still available and protecting health systems;

2. helping people cope with adversity, through social protection and basic services;

3. protecting jobs, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, and informal sector workers through economic response and recovery programmes;

4. guiding the necessary surge in fiscal and financial stimulus to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable and strengthening multilateral and regional responses; and

5. promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems.

These 5 workstreams of the UN are inextricably linked to the work of the G20. Through its Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia had already made plans for massive domestic transformation and now that agenda is carrying over into its role globally.  With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the presidency of the G20, it is its time to shine. However, it has to face the so called double whammy of low oil prices AND the corona virus!

Saudi Arabia must show leadership in these turbulent times just as you, the research community, will have to lead ---to offer science based factual guidance to the international community.

Investments must compliment the UN’s health and humanitarian response.

They must be investments in resilience and in the recognition embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that all life on this planet is inter- connected and that no single individual should be left behind.

UNDP, my agency, will focus on three immediate priorities: (1) health systems support (in close partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) , (2) inclusive and integrated crisis management and support (in close partnership with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); and, (3) social and economic impact needs assessment and response (the area in which UNDP has the technical lead in the UN).

The magnitude of COVID will require UNDP to lean on a corporate initiative launched last year to help drive innovation and multidisciplinary effort – a collection of 60 Accelerator Labs in 78 UNDP country offices, five of which are G20 countries : Argentina, India, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey.

The UNDP Accelerator Labs are the fastest learning global network on development challenges. We are now recruiting for a second cohort of 30 labs to be based in UNDP around the world. We use the power of the crowd, machine learning and distributed decision making to support partners to understand problems, develop new solutions, promote more inclusive decision making, and provide better oversight of what is done.

UNDP is identifying grassroots solutions and stretching their potential to accelerate development. 

We apply experimentation closely with government partners to grow this as a mode of operating to reduce costs of large-scale public sector reforms.

Experimentation helps us learn whether particular assumptions are accurate before deploying solutions at scale, especially in the rapidly evolving contexts that often dominate development progress. 

With their three-pronged approach of EXPLORATION, SOLUTIONS MAPPING, and EXPERIMENTATION, the Accelerator Labs represent UNDPs ‘global disaggregated think tank’ and are thus a natural counterpart to all of you!

Let me now offer some suggestion on areas where I feel you, the research community, can contribute to the COVID response whether through the channel of the T20 and the G20 or more broadly.

The areas of intervention requiring scientific rigor and engagement are enormous -so let me highlight areas that have a multiplicative impact and ones inextricably linked to the Sustainable Development Goals.

In no particular order and with job creation as a guiding beacon ,

First, environmental sustainability- we have been pillaging our magnificent planet at a speed that is devastating. Think Tanks must promote nature-based solutions for development.

Second, make clear the linkages between nature and health. For example, carbon storage benefits, water supply and purification, soil quality, eco-friendly recreation.

Third, gender equality- women are disproportionately impacted by COVID and are already disadvantaged globally. They are over-represented in the health sector, are a majority in the informal sector, and are more often victims of violence and exploitation. Moreover, they are often excluded in the design and implementation phases of research as well as product development.

Fourth, innovations in education…this would include means of educating, training of teachers, production of accessible learning materials, distance learning in remote impoverished locations.

Fifth, and the hosts of today’s event will recognize the importance of this item- closing the energy gap and diversifying energy usage and models.

Sixth, Food security – with transport linkages disrupted and in many cases, broken, how do we fight hunger? How do we encourage and provide good science behind local production and local consumption?

Seventh, e-Commerce and digital solutions- COVID has demonstrated that internet connectivity and the ability of businesses to shift to electronic means for transactions have been crucial to survival.

Finally, eighth, and my colleague from OECD may speak to this - is the need for research and innovation on the shift from funding to financing . In fact, long before COVID landed in our lives, the Crown Prince himself said the biggest single challenge to achieving the 2030 development agenda and its goal of ‘leaving no one behind’ was FINANCING.

The Saudi Presidency of the G20 is taking that to heart by prioritizing a Multi-Year Framework on Financing Sustainable Development so the most vulnerable do not endure development setbacks and gains made on the SDGs are not sacrificed.

A stronger focus on financing sustainable development linked to the COVID response, including in the provision of universal health coverage, gives an opportunity to the Saudi Presidency to establish a truly meaningful legacy at the Riyadh Summit.

In closing, let me wish you all well and encourage you to be bold, be vocal, but to also be humble. If the corona virus has taught us anything, it is that we are closer to one another than ever before imagined … socially, politically, and economically.

So, while the title of this session tells us that times are turbulent , necessity is, after all, the mother of invention!

Thank You.