World leaders are gathering in New York this week for the 2021 U.N. General Assembly against a backdrop of unprecedented global crises, including the continued spread of COVID-19 due to lack of access to vaccines; a growing hunger crisis as more people around the world die every day from starvation than from COVID-19; and the fact that roughly one percent of the world’s entire population — or one in every 97 people — is now forcibly displaced. These humanitarian challenges are compounded by a generational climate crisis and rising tensions with Russia and China that will need to be carefully managed. 

President Joe Biden addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City. September 21, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City. September 21, 2021. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Despite the enormous scale of current global crises, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has developed an ambitious vision for the way forward in his “Our Common Agenda” report. It calls on the international community to avoid letting the urgent crowd out the important and to stay focused on building long-term resilience to future shocks. Heeding this call will be critical not only to managing future global risks, but to preventing the spread of instability and violence in the world’s most fragile places.

What Does Governance Have To Do with Resilience and Peace?

The theme of this year’s U.N. General Assembly, “Building Resilience Through Hope,” underscores how good governance and governments’ capacity to deliver for their citizens are key to managing these global crises. Strengthening government services like health care and disaster assistance will be critical in making countries and communities more resilient to pandemics, like COVID-19, and to the impacts of climate change, like the wildfires and extreme storms that we’ve seen this year in the United States and elsewhere. 

But a strong social contract between citizens and their government is also vital to maintaining peace and security. We know, for example, that when leaders promote national dialogue and unity, and when state institutions are perceived as legitimate and just, violence and conflict are less likely. Conversely, in places where states are fragile, and the social contract is frayed, conflict and violence are more likely. Effective and legitimate state institutions are key to averting the deadly civil wars we see today in places like Myanmar, Ethiopia and Syria, as well as the spread of violent extremist ideologies like that of the Islamic State. 

The Imperative of Renewing the Social Contract

And yet, all is not well with the state of the social contract in many countries around the world today, which doesn’t bode well for future peace and stability. At the national level in many countries, we’re seeing signs of stress in the fundamental relationship between citizens and their government. We see the signs of this stress in public opinion polls showing that trust in government is at an all-time low. We also see signs of this strain in the many antigovernment protests that have erupted around the world — most recently in Tunisia and El Salvador. Where governments have fallen short in responding to COVID-19, state fragility is increasing, and these tensions could lead to violence or sow the seeds for future conflicts down the road.

Staying focused on addressing fragility, building more resilient state institutions and targeting the root causes of conflict should therefore remain a high priority on the agendas of world leaders in New York. This is particularly important since so many of the global crises we’re facing today, particularly the hunger crisis and the migration crisis, are being fueled by conflicts. Forced displacement of people is happening around the world on a huge scale — larger than at any time since WWII, and much of this crisis has its roots in persistent wars around the world. 

At the same time, global challenges like climate change and forced migration are also contributing to conflicts, as we’re seeing in parts of Africa. Breaking this doom spiral between violence and humanitarian emergencies requires renewing the social contracts in vulnerable countries by focusing on rebuilding trust and social cohesion. 

Beyond Crisis Response

There are no easy answers for how to deal not just with the symptoms of today’s emergencies, but the conflicts that are at the root of so much human suffering. First and foremost, it requires addressing today’s crises holistically and moving beyond crisis response. The U.S. government and multilateral organizations must commit to integrating conflict prevention and the promotion of democracy and human rights into the global response to COVID-19 and adopt a more holistic approach to pandemic recovery.

Secondly, the United States and other donors should increase emergency assistance to address the acute needs driven by the pandemic and other humanitarian crises. But they should also increase their investments in programs to build resilience to shocks in poor countries. President Biden’s announcement of new funding to enable poor countries to adopt clean energy and manage the impacts of climate change is an important step in this regard. Similar investments to support democratic reforms, rule of law and civil society are also essential, and the United States and other donors should recommit to support country plans for achieving the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

Thirdly, the Biden administration has an opportunity to address the root causes of conflicts and instability around the world with the U.S. Global Fragility Act (GFA), a new law that requires the federal government to work more effectively — using diplomacy, development and defense tools — to prevent complex emergencies and security threats from emerging in the first place. Senior officials in the Biden administration should commit to making tangible progress on this agenda. Despite the challenges of addressing a pandemic, ballooning humanitarian needs and a global climate crisis, it would be a mistake to walk away from policy frameworks, like the GFA, designed to tackle the underlying drivers of fragility. The risk that civil wars and regional conflicts in fragile states could become flashpoints between great powers and spark a global conflagration only makes this agenda more urgent.

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