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EDITORIAL: When it rains, it pours. Reeling from one disaster after another for the last couple of years, mainly the once-in-a-century trauma caused by Covid, the United Nations (UN) laments that human progress has been set back by at least five years, in addition to fuelling a global wave of uncertainty.

It turns out that in the 30 years that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been active, the landmark Human Development Index (HDI) — which measures life expectancy, education levels and living standards in countries — declined for two years in a row for the first time in 2021 and 2022. “It means we die earlier, we are less well educated, our incomes are going down,” in the chilling words of UNDP chief Achim Steiner to an international news outlet.

In its latest report ‘Uncertain times, unsettled lives’ the UN notes that the HDI had been steadily rising for decades till the Covid shock, and also explains how a number of other political, financial and climate-related crises have not allowed time for populations to recover. And now the whole world has lost at least five years of hard-earned progress.

The UN and its affiliate agencies were, in fact, warning since the beginning of the pandemic that it would push millions upon millions across the world back below the poverty line once again, eroding decades of advances that took a lot of money and effort from stakeholders in all countries.

And since most of the poor countries are still trying to find their feet and prevent outright economic/financial collapse, there’s no telling when they’ll have enough money again for things like poverty alleviation and better education for their children.

There’s also the concern that this particular report might not have factored in the full impact of latest climate-related devastation, especially in countries like Pakistan. In just the last few days, estimates of the damage done here have risen from $10 billion to approximately $30 billion.

And you can be sure that this number will rise for a while as more destruction is accounted for. Needless to say that without substantial outside help, the math alone is enough to break the economy which runs on less than $10 billion in reserves and will most likely tumble into default if the IMF (International Monetary Fund) lifeline is not kept intact; whatever the cost.

This is indeed a very grim moment for the international community. The UN, for all its shortcomings in preventing wars and controlling superpowers, truly stands out as the only international outfit with the footprint and ability to conduct research on a global scale; and it not only raises timely red flags but also helps distribute more aid and settle more displaced people than other institutions.

Yet as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres saw with his own eyes in Pakistan just the other day, the challenges we face now are unprecedented. They will require everybody to join hands. And even more importantly, rich countries will have to step forward to help poor countries if everybody is to make it out of these crises in one piece.

That, once again, brings us to the question of debt relief. Most third world countries have still not recovered from Covid. Now they’re overwhelmed by climate catastrophes — more death, destruction, loss to economy, etc.

If the biggest part of their budgets still goes to debt servicing, that too when they’re forbidden from extending the few subsidies they might still be able to afford, then they’re sure to lose yet more on the human development front, weighing the rest of the world down as well.

Perhaps making rich nations understand their responsibilities at this moment ought to be the UN’s next priority.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022


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