After Covid, we must build a world with equality, transparency and sustainability at its core – Grete Faremo

As countries recover from the coronavirus pandemic, we should focus on creating a more sustainable and inclusive way of life, writes United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General Grete Faremo.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen took her country into lockdown early and then also begin to lift the restrictions before many other nations (Picture: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix /AFP via Getty Images)
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen took her country into lockdown early and then also begin to lift the restrictions before many other nations (Picture: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix /AFP via Getty Images)

In Denmark, where I lead UNOPS, the United Nation’s infrastructure and procurement specialists, the process of easing lockdown measures started a few weeks ago, bringing an end to the weeks of social restrictions that have changed the world around for good.

Ever since Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that the Nordic nation would emerge from lockdown, much of the world’s media has been focused on the progress the country has made. In many respects, Denmark has been at the forefront in Europe – being among the first to both impose nationwide closures, then to begin opening up. But this journey has not been simple or easy, and much of the hard work is still to be done.

It has almost been three months since I was informed about the first confirmed Covid-19 case at our headquarters in Copenhagen. Fifteen minutes after the Prime Minister’s announcement that she would place Denmark under lockdown, I instructed all personnel in Copenhagen to start working from home immediately. By the next morning, all 11 UN agencies in Denmark agreed to take the unprecedented decision to raise our security level – requiring nearly 1,800 personnel to work from home. To my knowledge, this was the first time a decision like this has been made since the UN arrived in Denmark more than 60 years ago.

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Since March, my colleagues and I from UNOPS have been adapting to life and work under lockdown. Many companies the world over, small to large, are doing the same. This has caused considerable damage to the status quo, but it has also given us an opportunity to build a better future.

While we are seeing many people recover from the disease, it is becoming clear that many areas of our global economy will not survive this pandemic.

Uncountable challenges

The International Labour Organisation estimates that nearly half of all workers in the world are at risk of losing their livelihoods and more than 436 million enterprises face high risks of serious disruption. The economic shock that is likely to come will leave few unaffected.

This provides uncountable challenges – but it also provides governments and enterprises with an opportunity. In times of crisis, it is natural for governments to implement reactive measures, but now is also the time for proactive planning. To plan an economy built on equality and sustainability to help steer the world onto a safer, healthier, more sustainable and inclusive path.

This means a recovery that goes hand-in-hand with climate action and one which can help us achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 together.

Before the coronavirus, it was calculated that between $3 trillion and $5 trillion would be needed every year to meet the SDGs by 2030. Estimates vary widely, but most put the annual funding shortfall among developing economies in the region of $1 trillion and $2.5 trillion. Undoubtedly, the investment needed will now be greater than ever before. The pandemic could cost the global economy $4.1 trillion in lost output – equivalent to the entire GDP of Germany.

However, with such a shock to our global economy, the only thing we have been gifted with is an opportunity to do things differently. We do not need to go back to business as usual. We can revitalise our economies by accelerating decarbonisation and incentivise the creation and retention of green jobs. We should focus our attention on economically encouraging new businesses and enterprises to have sustainability at the heart of their business plan.

Open government

We see promising signs. Last week, the European Commission announced their “Green Recovery” plan – an ambitious public and private investment drive aiming to attract €150 billion for climate-friendly transport solutions, cleaner industry and the renovation of homes. This was the same week that six Danish companies announced a new project to turn wind power from a new energy island in the Baltic Sea into green jet fuel for Copenhagen airport. This is likely to encourage more enterprises to seek not only to make money, but to make the world a better place.

We can demand that the fragilities in social protections are strengthened the world over, so that our systems are more resilient to future shocks.

During this response, governments are learning that procurement – essentially government shopping – is a powerful public policy. Lessons learnt here can lead to better and smarter public spending.

Digital technologies can help us to advance sustainable purchasing, whether through mediating government-vendor relationships, analysing contracts, or monitoring supply chains and identifying corruption.

In Latin America and the Carribean, for example, the Inter-American Network on Government Procurement has an initiative focused on promoting open data, allowing anyone from citizens and journalists to public officials to read and monitor what their government is spending money on, and who with. This increases transparency, serves as a disincentive for corruption and makes monitoring efficiency far easier.

We can place equality at the very heart of what we do, creating an economy built by everyone, for everyone. We must ensure we all have a say in planning our future economy, not just through job creation, but focusing on building inclusive infrastructure to support it. This means giving a voice to those who have for years not had one.

Encouraging public discourse, government-endorsed civil society meetings and collective community brainstorming can achieve this. This way, the decisions we make will be made by everyone, for everyone.

The next stage in this great challenge of our time requires every bit of strength and determination we have shown to date. As countries emerge from this crisis, we need to focus on recovering better, in a more sustainable and inclusive way, and provide more resilient health systems. And if we do, we can ensure we rebuild a better future for all.

Grete Faremo is Under-Secretary-General and executive director of UNOPS, the United Nations infrastructure and procurement specialists. She formerly led four ministries in the Norwegian government. The original version of this article appeared in the Danish newspaper Politiken.

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