A “mixed” response from the international community is threatening a worst-case scenario for fragile states facing COVID-19. USIP’s Tyler Beckelman says countries need to recognize “the best strategy for defeating the virus is defeating it everywhere” and cooperate on aid in fragile contexts.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: As the world's privileged cope with the COVID pandemic through telework and sheltering at home, millions of people face grim struggles for survival packed into informal settlements or camps where people already displaced in war-torn or fragile states. Governments have missed opportunities for a stronger international response, partly because of great power rivalries. That is the opening of a piece put together by Tyler Beckelman, “The Coronavirus Requires Global Cooperation.” Tyler Beckelman is the United States Institute of Peace director for international partnerships, is joining us here on POTUS and tweeting @USIP. Tyler, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Tyler Beckelman: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Tim Farley: I note that this is clearly, as you point out in just that opening paragraph to this piece, a challenge because this is being experienced, this pandemic is being experienced on different levels by different economic levels of people around the world.

Tyler Beckelman: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, while many fragile and conflict-affected states are just now beginning to see a rise in cases of of COVID-19. What's becoming increasingly clear is that the economic impacts due to unemployment, crashing commodity prices, supply chain disruptions, food, you know, food supply chain disruptions, et cetera, all of those impacts will be pretty severe and long-lasting. The World Bank recently projected that that COVID pandemic will cause the first increase in global poverty since 1998, pushing 49 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2020 and in effect wiping out decades of development gains. In Africa alone, the IMF projected the largest single economic contraction in recorded history. And the World Food Programme has warned that, the U.N. World Food Programme has warned that populations facing acute hunger in the Middle East and Africa could double to over 260 million by the end of 2020. And that we could be facing famine in about a dozen countries under a worst case scenario. And this would all be pretty unprecedented.

Tim Farley: And the challenge as you note in the piece, social distancing, for example, nearly impossible for many communities like the million ethnic Rohingya refugees packed into camps in Bangladesh. In other words, the solutions that are available to many of us, who just even in this country, even of lesser means in this country are not available to many of these individuals. Where is the missed opportunity for international community? Cause I think that's part of the thrust of the article as well.

Tyler Beckelman: Absolutely. No, I mean I think because those states are so fragile, because they have such limited fiscal resources domestically and such limited public health infrastructure, they're reliant on international cooperation and, and support to be able to make their way through this, you know, this generational crisis. So I mean, the missed opportunity has been that there really hasn't been a center of gravity for the international response. I think a generous interpretation would be that the international response thus far has been mixed. You know, countries have not come together aside from a few, you know, small convening or a few convenings of multilateral institutions like the G20 or others to announce more substantial packages of relief and support for these countries that are really feeling the brunt of this. I think now we're just beginning to see how severe the second-order economic impacts will be.

And so there's still time to rescue some you know, some momentum from this, but the measures that have been announced, such as stopping debt service payments or giving a moratorium on debt service payments for low income countries through the end of, to the end of the year. Other measures that have been put in place, the sort of massive concessional lending packages that have been announced by the, by the World Bank and other development banks all have, you know, all should be expanded and, and should be potentially extended through 2021 and beyond. This really is a break-the-glass moment for the international response.

Tim Farley: Tyler Beckelman, United States Institute of Peace director for international partnerships. I was going to ask the question, who should lead this effort? I think you've answered it in the piece where you note the U.N. Security Council is the world's primary mechanism for addressing threats to peace and security. So what can they do?

Tyler Beckelman: Well, the Security Council I think is a case of just how dire the state of international cooperation is in response to this pandemic. Instead of showing, you know, unity at the outset of the crisis, the Council initially refused to consider the virus in issue of international security and has only convened once to discuss the pandemic. The council also had a real golden opportunity to address conflicts following Secretary-General Gutierrez’ call for a global ceasefire in late March. But they still have not been able to agree on something as simple as endorsing a humanitarian ceasefire to permit a more effective COVID response in different conflict zones.

It's still possible for the Security Council to rescue some credibility. The French and the Tunisians have been pushing a forward-leaning resolution on to endorse a humanitarian ceasefire that could be backed up by a monitoring mechanism to report compliance by state and nonstate actors. And ideally, this could be potentially one bright spot that could come out of the pandemic if the ceasefires could be turned into political processes that would bring some of the world's most intractable conflicts to an end. But it really, it really requires the great powers of the world to come together with a common vision and recognize that, that we really are facing a generational threat to to human security.

Tim Farley: Related to this. I wonder, Tyler, is this crisis strengthening or weakening the autocratic authoritarian governments around the world?

Tyler Beckelman: I mean, I think we've seen a lot of authoritarian governments use this as an opportunity to consolidate their positions. You've seen this in countries as varied as Hungary and others, you've seen a pretty substantial security crackdowns by a number of authoritarian states to enforce, you know, COVID social distancing measures and, and other things as well. And so I do think that some states are taking the opportunity on this to consolidate and authoritarian governments are taking the opportunity to consolidate their positions and use the crisis to their advantage, for sure.

Tim Farley: I wonder how countries are going to be able to assist other countries when they might say, look, we got to stick to our knitting at home. We've got to make sure that we take care of this issue on our own country.

Tyler Beckelman: I think it's, I think it's a little bit of both. I think ultimately countries, you know, hopefully we'll recognize that the best strategy for defeating the viruses to defeat it everywhere. If there continues to be hotspots of the pandemic in Africa and the Middle East and some other places then, you know, we're never going to, you know, countries are never going to be safe within their own borders and the pandemic will still continue to rage. So it's a matter of both. I think it's a matter of enlightened self-interest in a lot of ways that the best, the best way to defeat this virus is to defeat it everywhere.

Tim Farley: Tyler, I appreciate your being on the show. Thanks so much.

Tyler Beckelman: Thank you for having me.

Tim Farley: Tyler Beckelman, United States Institute of Peace director for international partnerships. The piece, “The Coronavirus Requires Global Cooperation.” You can find it at the website, usip.org and you can find them on Twitter at @USIP.

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