The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically highlighted the need for effective international cooperation in a globalized world, where country-level solutions cannot effectively address transnational challenges. With currently more than 30 million confirmed cases and more than 945,000 deaths and spikes appearing across the globe, no country can tackle this pandemic alone. The collective efforts to create a vaccine, improve testing, and create safe travel corridors underscore how health and mobility are critical global goods. The ongoing crisis emphasizes once again the importance of the multilateral agenda, and the role those on the frontlines play to actualize international commitments.
From the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to the Paris Agreement, to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the international community has made great progress in outlining a more prosperous, healthy, and transparent world. Unfortunately, these ambitious objectives risk being sidelined now, as the effects of COVID-19 will hamper the ability of countries and supranational institutions to prioritize long-term needs. Normally, these challenges—extreme poverty, global warming, corruption—and the commitments associated with them, would have been at the center of the United Nations General Assembly held annually in September. But for the first time in its 75 years of history, world leaders will not be gathering in-person in New York City, a powerful reminder that the globe is still struggling with the worst pandemic in over 100 years.
Amidst this bleak picture, a look at how local communities and subnational institutions are dealing with devastating effects of COVID-19 offers glimmers of hope. In the months since the pandemic broke out, we have witnessed several examples of citizens uniting to support each other and protect the most vulnerable. In South Africa, for instance, the Ndlovu Youth Choir utilized their artistic ability to compose a song on the World Health Organization’s safety advice to help their community stay informed. In Jordan, citizens from Mafraq created a volunteer committee to help deliver food to vulnerable residents. In nations particularly struck by COVID-19 state governments are adopting creative solutions. In India, the state of Odisha secured medical supplies to its healthcare network by rethinking its approach to procurement that included multiple stakeholders, such as doctors, hospital managers and officials across several public entities. Where national governments may struggle to manage the crisis, local community actors have tried to fill the gap.
Epidemics often showcase the need and capacity of actors outside the central government to be included. The Ebola crisis is but one example where local leadership—in coordination with national and international efforts—was essential in solving a transnational problem. The need to obtain local community buy-in, as well as the importance of national government coordination along with international organization and country to country collaboration has been key in trying to contain the crisis. Locally led responses to health crises accentuate why countries ought to enthusiastically embrace multilevel governance as a means to achieve progress on development goals. Top-down approaches to achieve critical benchmarks on health care, the environment and government transparency, among others, must be accompanied by bottom-up initiatives. Too often it is thought of as an “either/or” or there is an expectation that this symbiosis will occur organically. As development agencies think through how to address global challenges in the absence of an in-person UNGA this year, they must be more intentional about working with and through local actors. Here are two ways they should do this.
First, ambitious development agendas need to be tailored to local realities in order to be successful, and those in close proximity to where the needs are have better information to adopt them. In addition, seeking inputs and supporting initiatives beyond the national government create the conditions for creativity and the piloting of innovative solutions. Experimentation is critical to effectively tackling socioeconomic, environmental and democratic governance challenges. Moreover, international commitments such as the SDGs can be a vehicle for governments to showcase they are reform minded, but with no real intention to implement the reform. Multilateral organizations and bilateral donors should demand that citizens are part of whole-of-society efforts to ensure that governments are pressed and accountable for achieving the goals.
However, incorporating the beneficiaries of global compacts into their design and implementation is not always easy. For emerging democracies, the infrastructure and practice for greater citizen or subnational government involvement might be lacking. Thus, a second priority for development partners is providing such countries with much needed assistance in establishing those frameworks and following through on commitments. Setting a hierarchy of priorities, especially in a context of economic downturn and strained government capacity and ensuring inputs and support from a broad range of actors, can maximize the chances of succeeding in maintaining the global development agenda. This will become more pressing as aid to stop the spread of COVID-19 and efforts to rebuild in its wake become more abundant.
The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated that effectively tackling key global challenges must prioritize the local level. Any successful global agreement or cooperation need to ensure the support of key local constituencies such as subnational government, civil society, political parties, and citizens. Fostering community buy-in and adopting a multi-level governance model are not only effective strategies in a health crisis, they should be the guiding principle to addressing various global challenges. Existing international commitments offer a roadmap for doing this, but without sustained efforts to include and learn from local actors, neither a solution for the current pandemic nor other critical development goals will be achieved on time.