The United Nations has failed: Fixing the world is now up to all of us
As the United Nations General Assembly opens this week amidst the deadliest pandemic in a century, the worst climate change-induced disasters in millennia, and hundreds of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people falling back into abject poverty, one thing is clear: The United Nations ideal, as envisioned by its founders, has in many important ways failed.
Rather than blame the United Nations and other international organizations for this failure, we need to place blame where it is due – on the U.N. member states that, for decades, have excessively defended their national sovereignty at the expense of our common good. Unless we find a way to collectively address our greatest global challenges – from pandemics to climate change and ecosystem destruction, from systemic poverty and inequality to proliferating weapons of mass destruction – our species will not just be at risk, we could even face extinction.
It was not coincidental that when the COVID-19 crisis began late last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) was caught flat-footed. We live in a world of sovereign states with only a thin overlay of international organizations working tirelessly, but too often in vain, to bring us all together. The WHO could not assess Chinese government misinformation or send emergency teams to Wuhan, China, because our states have not given the WHO independent pandemic surveillance and emergency response capabilities for fear that this might compromise national sovereignty. The same basic story can be told for why we can’t address so many other global issues.
That’s because, while our biggest problems are global, the ways we have organized to address them are predominantly national. Until we fix this fundamental mismatch, we will be in grave and growing danger. We can’t do this by platitudes or by singing songs and waving our smartphones in the air.
In very short order, we humans have gone from being disparate bands of roving nomads to becoming a global species with the awesome power to remake almost every aspect of life on earth. But we have become a global species without developing a global consciousness or politics to match. To safeguard our future, we must change that. We need a new global operating system.
The foundation of this new approach must be a recognition of the mutual responsibilities of our deep global interdependence. Its manifestation must be an empowered and fully inclusive global movement of people of all backgrounds. Our national and international leaders have failed us, so regular people must divide up among ourselves the jobs of building a better future — or face the consequences of our inaction.
First, we must urgently ramp up the funding, staffing, authority, and global coordinating role of the World Health Organization. At a time when walls are going up around the world, we desperately need an empowered global health organization to operate above them. We don’t now have the WHO we need — but we can build it up, fast, if we put our collective minds to it.
Second, we must create a powerful new specialized agency within the U.N. focusing on common responses to shared, existential threats. Backed by and coordinating with states, but also operating with a high degree of depoliticized autonomy, this agency would be tasked with identifying and analyzing the greatest risks facing our species and our common home, developing, coordinating and implementing ongoing action plans for addressing them, compiling and sharing best practices from around the world, and leading efforts to build capacity everywhere, to prepare for and seek to prevent future global crises, and coordinating emergency responses when crises do occur.
Third, world leaders, particularly from the G-7 and G-20 counties, must commit to a specific, adequately funded plan to ensure safe drinking water, basic sanitation and essential protection from deadly pandemics to every person on Earth by 2030. This pandemic and its economic impact not only put the world’s most vulnerable populations at risk, it threatens all of us. If the virus grows and mutates anywhere, it poses an increased threat to people everywhere. In this context, calling for a massive, concerted global effort to address the emergency needs of the world’s most vulnerable population is not an act of charity but a pragmatic imperative.
Our world today exists at a crossroads. The pandemic, wildfires, poverty and despair we see around us are indicators of the even worse problems we will face if we don’t dramatically change course.
The good news is that a hopeful future awaits us where our collective needs can be far better met. The question for the leaders meeting this week for the UN General Assembly — and for all of us — is whether we have the imagination and courage to together start building that world.
Jamie Metzl is a technology futurist, a member of the World Health Organization’s international advisory committee on human genome editing and the founder and chairman of OneShared.World, a global social movement focusing on world collective-action policies. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” (2019). He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.
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