Let UNGA not abandon poverty

Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden addresses the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City on September 19, 2023. 

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • The importance of Africa staying neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war cannot be stressed enough yet holding that position is increasingly becoming untenable.
  • Washington has reportedly stepped up efforts to get African leaders to support Ukraine and at least condemn Russia.

World leaders gather once again at the UN headquarters in New York to recommit themselves to the ideals and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), at the heart of an ambitious global development blueprint, past the midpoint of the 2030 deadline for the 17 objectives.

The theme of this year’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) is “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all”. However, it might not be easy to “rebuild trust” and “reignite global solidarity” since the international community is badly fractured and diplomacy itself is in peril.

The summit is overshadowed by an atrocious war in Ukraine between Russia and its nemesis Nato that has claimed some half a million fighters. The China-West hostility has gathered steam with each side erecting trade barriers, with a chilling effect on the global economy. The unilateral imposition of sanctions and counter-sanctions, and disruptive trade wars and toxic relations between big powers, have serious consequences in the global South, including rising food and energy prices. 

Efforts to tackle poverty

It may be ill-advised to pre-empt the outcome of such a gathering yet recent trends would suggest a high possibility of lack of consensus on any substantive issue. Save for the host US, leaders of the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Rishi Sunak (UK), Emmanuel Macron (France) and Xi Jinping (China) have kept off.

Besides, developing countries are openly challenging the dominant Western worldview that is foundational to the norm and agenda-setting of the UN. Many nations and groups are resisting the imposition of liberal ideals of a godless-everything-goes society that embraces alternative sexual practices, multiple gender choices and the so-called gender affirmation surgery that involves physical removal of sexual organs of minors without parental involvement.

Marshalling global efforts to tackle poverty, in all its forms and dimensions, should be the absolute priority yet attention has since moved onto other issues—such as tackling climate change—with poor countries, in Africa and elsewhere, left to their devices. The 1971 General Assembly Resolution requiring wealthy nations to provide development assistance to the poorest at 0.7 per cent of their gross national product has been abandoned. Notable economists have called for ending foreign aid to Africa altogether, arguing that the continent is too corrupt for it to work. As a result, relatively advanced countries have increasingly become the primary recipients of development assistance.

Poor nations hesitant to embrace liberal agenda are punished. Uganda, for example, could be cut off from the global financial system for its hardline stance against the LGBT agenda. Besides, making changes to how aid is defined and measured, OECD-led efforts to reform the entire foreign aid enterprise seem to achieve little. 

Russia-Ukraine war

It is not clear what Africa would be seeking at this UNGA. Donor fatigue and a lack of demonstrable results have undermined its repeated plea for global support, making it a nuisance. Furthermore, the ongoing revolt against France has Europeans on the edge. Africa’s delegation itself is divided between those in favour of the status quo and the new African out to chart a new cause for himself and his nation.

The importance of Africa staying neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war cannot be stressed enough yet holding that position is increasingly becoming untenable. Washington has reportedly stepped up efforts to get African leaders to support Ukraine and at least condemn Russia. The Biden Administration is expected to make overtures to the leaders still on the fence. Those who hold out could be denied economic opportunities. For instance, amidst global inflation, Russia uses grain and fertiliser to woo Africans but with limited success in places like Kenya. We might also see African countries that had signed up for China’s Belt and Road Initiative step back.

Regardless of the geopolitics, Africa must be clear about its priorities. The 54 nations are teeming with millions of restless youth seeking employment and a livelihood. Their situation, however, is unlikely to change if the current global economic system, of an affluent North and a dependent South, is not reformed. Africans must use the platform to call upon the developed countries, the UN system (which encompasses the World Bank and the IMF) and others from whom they have borrowed billions of dollars to commence talks to address the growing sovereign debt crisis.

Poor countries are faced with reduced opportunities to access concessional finance, rapid currency devaluation, inflation and crippling debt servicing expenses. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has the challenge of ending the hostilities and ensuring that the UN regains its relevance as an umpire of divergent voice. Voices from the global South must be heard and their concerns addressed lest Africans give up on a divided assembly that is no longer “fit for purpose”. 

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. [email protected]