World at risky moment as era of 'greatest progress for most' is in danger of ending

Head of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation tells Chatham House multilateral co-operation could be lost

A health worker administers polio vaccine to children in Karachi, Pakistan. Childhood vaccination rates have declined. EPA

The world is facing “its riskiest moment” of the last 25 years, the chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said as he warned of an era defining reverse in progress against poverty and disease.

Mark Suzman told an event in London held by UK-based think tank Chatham House that the next 18 months were “critical” as the world grappled with its post-pandemic recovery plans.

Global development gains made in the preceding decades could be lost if government policies continued to avoid multilateral co-operation, he said.

“The first two decades of the 21st century were arguably the greatest advancement for the greatest number of people across a greater range of geographies all over the world than there has ever been in human history,” he said.

“That said, Covid clearly is a moment where there is a before and after. We are in a fundamentally different context geopolitically, economically and certainly in terms of health and development trajectories.

“We've seen the first increases in extreme poverty globally since the late 1990s. We've seen a flattening of first reductions in childhood vaccination rates, the first increases in malaria after two decades of decline, all of that while having to deal with the Covid crisis itself, also which has a huge impact.”

Economic shocks brought on by the war in Ukraine threatened to compound the economic challenges of decline and cuts in global aid, he said.

“There is a real risk that the next few years see continued setbacks rather than progress,” said Mr Suzman.

“This is a moment that certainly for the last 25 years is probably the most risky in terms of the potential longer term trajectory for development progress of the countries.”

Speaking alongside Mr Suzman, the head of the Overseas Development Institute said the initial global unity seen at the start of the pandemic had since made way for “shameful” evasion of international responsibility.

“Covid brought out the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. The fact that we were able to produce and roll out 12 billion vaccines, to scale up social security systems at a time where our economies were grounded are feats of human ingenuity that we should actually celebrate,” said chief executive Dr Sara Pantuliano.

“But at the same time, we saw $17 trillion going into national stimuli, when overall overseas development assistance grew by a mere $5 billion overall, and in some countries, like the UK, it actually fell.”

In 2020, the UK government announced it would cut spending on foreign aid from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent because of pressure caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK’s Department for International Development and the Foreign Office were also merged in the same year.

Dr Pantuliano said the lack of a clear strategy made the merger a “failure”, undermining the “quality of UK development assistance” as well as the role of Global Britain.

Increasing “protectionism and short sightedness” of richer nations made for a “pessimistic” outlook on the progress of international development.

“We need to reframe development in terms of solidarity … tackling the core injustice that most of our life chances are really set by where you have the fortune of being born.

“The unavoidable reality is that taxpayers in richer countries will have to be open to mobilise more resources, because you can only tackle the injustice through greater international public financing.”

Commitments to tackle climate change are also in danger of being eroded by geopolitical division brought on by the war in Ukraine and the implications on energy prices for lower income countries.

While there is a “real danger” that some countries return to coal production, Europe could also use this opportunity to step up the transition to renewable energies.

Earlier this week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Qatar Fund for Development jointly pledged up to $200 million in a new partnership to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.

Nanmo, or “growing together”, will invest in climate-adaptive agricultural tools and technologies to build resilient food systems and markets that provide nutrition, income, and economic opportunities to small-scale producers and their communities across the African continent.

Updated: March 31, 2022, 11:47 AM