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COVID-19 and the Global South — From crisis response to sustainable development

Around the world, the pandemic, and the measures taken to address it, have had far reaching effects on poverty, inequality, and governance.  And even as the need for global action has increased, many wealthy countries have turned inwards — with closed borders, stockpiling of vaccines, and prioritizing of resources for their own populations. Prospects for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, always a tall order, look increasingly grim.

As parts of the world begin to reopen, it is important to take stock, particularly with reference to the Global South. What are the legacies of the past 18 months, what will be the new normal, and what might be done now to influence things for the better?

This was the focus of our 2021 WIDER Development Conference, COVID-19 and development – Effects and new realities for the Global South.  The three-day virtual event, with over 1200 people joining from 107 countries, brought together policy experts, development practitioners, and researchers from a range of fields.

Long and deep – the effects that outlive the virus 

The two conference keynotes spotlighted key aspects of the pandemic’s impact. LSE Professor Oriana Bandiera’s remarks underscored the gravity of the pandemic in terms of poverty. It is not only that decades of progress on global poverty have been undone. In many parts of the Global South, poverty was not falling even before the pandemic. So, it’s not a reversal of trend, but an already bad situation getting worse.  

And, beyond the shocks that have caused poverty rates to spike, social distancing measures — such as school closures and lockdowns — have detrimental effects on human and physical capital in ways that will long outlive the pandemic. These effects, which disproportionately disadvantage the poor and young women, could further deepen inequalities.  

Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, Professor Staffan Lindberg, brought in a political lens, sharing new research on trends in democracy and autocracy around the world. Particularly concerning are the ways in which the pandemic has played into ongoing trends of autocratization, giving leaders new opportunities to repress opposition and extend their control.  

Such trends raise concerns not only for civil and political rights but also for socioeconomic development, with some evidence showing autocracies are linked with worse economic and health outcomes, higher infant mortality rates, greater risk of violent conflict, and so on. Such linkages were further considered in panel discussions on democracy and on conflict, drawing on new research using the Afrobarometer surveys and a variety of other sources.  

Can we ‘build back better’? 

Day 3 of the conference aimed to look forward. Experts from the RISE Programme, for instance, shared key policies that are needed from the education system to recover lost opportunities; colleagues in the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) led a session on what can be learned about inclusive adaptation and recovery policies from the crisis response; and our colleagues in UNU-CRIS convened a session on the future of global health governance.  

In panels convened by our friends at WIEGO, we heard about the changing nature of informal work. It is estimated that well over half of the world’s employed population is in the informal sector, higher still in the Global South, with over 85% in Africa. The pandemic has led to increased recognition of essential workers in the informal sector, yet this has not come with increased protection or value. A new deal for informal workers is due, Dr Marty Chen argued in the closing panel. Recognising the value of informal workers in the economy during this crisis could provide some momentum for much needed change.  

In all of this, accurate and timely data is important, but the pandemic has hampered data collection, with surveys postponed or cancelled all together, exacerbating existing weakness in the data available on many Global South countries. A handful of sessions considered diverse sources of data (including some we host at UNU-WIDER — on inequality, government revenue, and economic transformation) and a policy panel considered data gaps and some ways the pandemic forces innovation.  

The value of many perspectives  

What made the discussions of this conference so valuable was the presence and participation of people who not only understand the development field but also the challenges present in the Global South first-hand. Speakers of 56 nationalities and participants from 107 countries ensured these discussions were filled with perspective. 

Facilitating global discussions like this among researchers and practitioners is part and parcel of our core work at UNU-WIDER, but this conference was different than previous ones — an example of the ‘new normal’. To take our conference online posed new challenges. We also engage young scholars, in particular, many of whom lose out on opportunities to present their research during the pandemic. New formats, such as fireside chats and a virtual networking ‘café’, turned into an opportunity to engage with a record number of people, many more than we could have brought together at an in-person conference.  

There was a lot that was new about this conference but also a lot that was familiar. WIDER Development Conferences’ strong convening power was on full display in session after session. The knowledge shared by the members of our network, and the connections built and strengthened, offer, once again, a solid contribution to research and policy on the future of development.   

 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors. 

Watch the sessions of the WIDER Development Conference ‘COVID-19 and development — effects and new realities for the global south’ on Youtube (more sessions added soon) 

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Working together to better understand how COVID-19 affects poverty and inequality
Working together to better understand how COVID-19 affects poverty and inequality
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