A shock that shakes our certainties about the resilience of our societies


In the midst of the crisis, Europe is in a state of shock. Italy, Spain and France, in particular, are experiencing an extremely deep sadness and a sense of powerlessness to help the most vulnerable, especially the elderly in our societies, despite health and social protection systems that could generally be considered better endowed and better organised than in other parts of the world. This deep moral distress goes beyond the question of how effectively different Governments have managed the crisis, and also goes beyond questioning the policies that have undermined these social systems, although both issues will remain legitimate when it comes to learning the lessons of the crisis. The extreme vulnerability of the most fragile is bursting into our lives and into the public debate in industrialized countries. At a time when the international community is getting organised, what responses can we expect from the G20 and the European Union? An analysis by Sébastien Treyer and Nicolas Berghmans from IDDRI.

Do we need a new social contract?

In Asia, the countries that seem to have coped best with the crisis are those that have already experienced this moral imperative in depth in previous health crises. But in tomorrow's world, where such crises are likely to be recurrent, the fact that some of the best-resourced countries do not have foolproof solutions for the most vulnerable raises questions about the very foundations of stability and resilience in our societies.

Moreover, while Europe is in a state of shock, it cannot, however, turn a blind eye to the health, human, social and economic consequences of the crisis, which could be even more dramatic and much more uneven in other continents, particularly in Africa. In view of these existential vulnerabilities for both individuals and societies, it is essential to restore a very deep sense of the social contract that binds us together as citizens within each country, but also within regional constructions such as the European Union, and at the global level.

The most spontaneous response for a think tank working on multilateralism and sustainable development is to say that we already have, formally, such a social contract: it is the set of agreements reached in 2015 within the framework of the UN, i.e. the Paris Climate Agreement and the national commitments listed therein; the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, to which all the countries of the planet have subscribed and which they have promised to take as a guide for their development trajectory; and the Addis Ababa Agenda on financing sustainable development, which defines, in particular, the major principles of financial solidarity between the countries of the planet.

Formally and conceptually, this is indeed the case. These 2015 commitments provide both a common direction, a common "political project", and partnership and cooperation modalities, based on the specific needs of each country. In addition to recording the commitment made by each country to guarantee access to essential services, including health, education, water, energy and food, the SDOs also set out a desired state of our societies, one that is less unequal, and of our relationship with the environment. Far from being merely juxtaposed, these interlinked objectives underline in particular that it is unsustainable to provide access to essential services, which we all concretely experience as being urgently needed, without addressing the root causes of vulnerability, both in terms of social inequalities and the degradation of climate and biodiversity. It is for this reason that they can be summed up both as an imperative for profound transformation of our societies and economies, and as a political project aimed at leaving no one by the wayside ("..."). leave no one behind »).

Demonstrate the relevance of SDOs in the fight against vulnerabilities

The 2015 agreements are both highly relevant for organizing our partnerships or reminding us of our commitments of solidarity between countries during and after the crisis, and for serving as a guide for the exit from the crisis by addressing the structural causes of our vulnerabilities.

But politically, the work of conviction within societies is not a given. It seems imperative today not to declare the relevance or the urgent need for a profound transformation towards the achievement of the MDGs, but to demonstrate it on the basis of the very lively political concerns of our societies, which are going through an absolutely unprecedented crisis in our social ties, and at a time when urgency rightly prevails. The political debates in different countries are seized by the awareness of the inequalities in vulnerability in our societies (the elderly and dependent people, but also the poorest in many countries, homeless people, refugees, etc.) and between our societies (especially for the countries of Southern Europe, where health systems have been greatly weakened by the previous crisis and the ensuing austerity policies), and call for rebuilding the conditions of our resilience, especially in terms of supply chains.

It is because they aim together to get to the root causes of these inequalities in terms of vulnerability that SDOs are all the more relevant today. It is by demonstrating this in concrete terms that we can avoid making climate ambition and SDGs appear as a conditionality for access to recovery plans, and that it can be supported politically as a proposal to prepare for the future, responding to the needs of societies.

In particular, among these concrete demonstrations, many analyses converge to underline the importance of the links between biodiversity degradation and the development of pandemics, but what exactly should we deduce about what needs to change upstream in our development models to reduce this health risk and our exposure to risk? Not aggravating it by the climate crisis is a first element of response, but we still need to better identify and inventory a certain number of more specific operational consequences (on our agricultural and food systems, spatial planning, for example).

What are the international responses to the questioning of our development models?

At the global level, international cooperation must without delay seek to coordinate the health and economic response to this crisis, taking particular account of the situation of the most vulnerable countries whose access to financing is limited, otherwise the major macroeconomic imbalances created by the consequences of this crisis could durably hamper their development in the years to come. This subject should be put on the table at the G20 Extraordinary Summit. But this body, created as a rapid coordination force in the face of financial crises, now seems to be lacking in leadership, just like the G7.

For its part, China already appears to be in a de facto leadership position: because it has the role of a watchdog, capable of already envisaging the plan to end a crisis that it faced earlier than the others, and that it seems to have managed better, which is why its decisions will be scrutinized with great attention, but also because it responds more quickly than other European States to the requests for sanitary equipment from affected countries such as Italy and Spain, and is already engaged with its New Silk Roads initiative in a form of intervention in all regions of the world.

The European Union must also play its part, particularly in relation to Africa. Even in times of internal crisis, the European Union must organise itself to have a clear proposal to make to the African Union and its Member States. Europe and Africa were looking for an agenda for their "partnership of equals", and crisis and post-crisis management was a key moment to test the capacity of these two blocs to forge a partnership that was as close as possible to their needs. Published by the European Commission before the Covid-19 crisis, the proposed European Union Strategy for Africa is worth analysing (read IDDRI's post on this theme), and the management of the crisis itself is a fundamental test of this partnership: the Green Pact takes on a new dimension in this crisis context, both as a project for structural transformation of the Member States and the EU, and as a horizon for a way out of the crisis for both Europe and Africa.

Solidarity within the European Union is itself under severe strain. After worrying demonstrations of an inability to coordinate and support each other, Member States are meeting in the European Council to decide on coordinated action. As regards economic support, it is still difficult to diagnose the extent of the crisis and the nature of the responses needed, but there is an urgent need for coordination. If an economic recovery plan proves necessary, it will have to draw lessons from the 2008 recovery plan and ensure that the root causes of the crisis are addressed. Integrating a social dimension more strongly could help reduce the vulnerability of individuals and societies. More broadly, the resilience of our societies and our economic models is becoming a very concrete issue, and one that is likely to become an integral part of companies' economic strategies.

A new economic organization

In terms of investment, in addition to the shortcomings revealed by the current health crisis, there is much to be gained by building on the priorities of the ecological transition to invent the world afterwards. Energy retrofitting of buildings, renewable energies and emission reductions in transport contribute to strengthening the resilience of our societies to climate risks, but also to improving the health of citizens. There are many convergences here. However, starting from the need to reduce the vulnerabilities revealed by this crisis, we are also seeing the material organisation of economic sectors and markets emerge as a profound questioning of the priorities given to reducing costs "at all costs", a priority that is generally motivated on the register of competitiveness in a globalisation operating in a relatively stable regime; it is a question of giving much greater priority to what ensures our collective resilience, in a world where instability linked to crises must absolutely be integrated, whether it is of financial origin, as in 2008, health or environmental.

This resilience is not abstract; it must be able to materialise in the organisation of sectors, particularly in logistics and supply chains and strategies (sourcing): diversifying supply chains and sources rather than seeking only specialisation, massification and economies of scale; maintaining the possibility of sourcing nearby in the event of a break in remote chains; ensuring forms of redundancy and duplication in logistics chains (doubling storage infrastructures, for example). These are all potential additional costs if the need for resilience is not taken into account, but in many cases they could lead to the bifurcation of economic strategies in different sectors, which are highly compatible with the transformations needed to protect the climate and biodiversity.

Sebastien TreyerManaging Director Iddri
Nicolas BerghmansSenior Researcher Climate and Energy IDDRI
(Source: Iddri, March 26, 2020)

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