The Future of the Multilateral System: Learnings from the Global Solutions Summit

With the global community continuing to grapple with impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that questions are being asked about whether the multilateral system can not only steer us through the pandemic, but also address other key policy challenges such as climate change, social inequality and trade disruption.

It is these very challenges that have stimulated debate over the last two days at the Global Solutions Summit. As the official communications partner to the summit, FleishmanHillard has been immersed in the extensive discussions and debates taking place amongst heads of state, leaders and experts from governments, think tanks, civil society groups and businesses. As the summit draws to a close, here are five key lessons to guide the multilateral community’s actions:

Future pandemic preparedness requires a global effort

The pandemic was naturally a major theme at this year’s Global Solutions Summit, and although we still find ourselves in the midst of this one, considerable attention was paid to preparing for the next global health challenge. The clear message was “now is the opportunity to put greater investment into preventative measures”. Governments must move away from the debate around health vs economy and understand that issues such as vaccine shortages are in themselves economic problems. With a 4.5% decline in global GDP during 2020, the cost-benefit analysis of investing in measures to prevent pandemics provides a simple conclusion: Pay now, save later.

If we can ensure that vaccines become a global public good instead of a commercial one, the rampant vaccine nationalism that has been seen during the last year will be avoided in future crises. This means governments and the pharmaceutical industry investing in global production capacity and supply chains to avoid future shortages and promote global cooperation. As Axel Radlach Pries, President of World Health Summit, rightly concluded: “No one is safe, until everyone is safe.”

Delivering net-zero: enabling businesses to do more

The environment was the largest focus area at this year’s summit – no other subject was covered more. What was fundamentally clear across the two days of discussion is that COVID-19 has not detracted attention from the climate emergency, but dramatically intensified it. For business leaders, it is the biggest issue occupying their agendas according to many of the speakers.

Net-zero is not an ambition, but an entry-level requirement to the climate change discussion, said the UK’s COP26 High-Level Champion Nigel Topping. In addition to going much further in their climate ambitions, businesses must do more to report on progress toward their climate commitments. However, it was clear that more assistance is needed from government, not only to shape reporting metrics, but also to accelerate the flow of finance into the right technologies and solutions, such as sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogen sources – this was the most urgent call to action stemming from the Global Solutions Summit.

The World Trade Organisation must embrace reform and accept the value of plurilateralism

The future of the trade governance agenda and the role of the WTO was another topic of immense debate and the message was clear: If the WTO is going to be great protector of open trade and prevent the spread of protectionism, then it cannot escape the need for reform. A dedicated panel on this subject pointed to digitalisation and technology as the key areas of opportunity for business, whilst the suggestion was that the allocation of resources both public and private will continue to be guided by ESG performance. Yet, despite this, the WTO’s make up continues to prevent consensus being reached on issues such as digital trade and sustainability.

For the organisation to move forward it must embrace “plurilateralism” to bring the multilateral trade regime up to speed with the evolving realities of global trade and empower business leaders to embrace new opportunities. Similarly, the WTO must rethink the way it monitors trade policies. It needs to develop a framework that increases the transparency of member states’ trade practices and helps deliver a “level playing field”. With the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new Director General, there is never a better time to make these changes.

Business realignment: Stakeholders, not shareholders

It is time to change the entire purpose of business. This was the message of Paolo Magri as the summit began to look at the case for a great realignment to address the systemic issues – like climate change, biodiversity loss and migration pressure – that are so pervasive in society today. There must be a fundamental change to create a business system driven by societal impact, with the purpose of business becoming positive societal change.

Moving away from solely shareholders and embracing stakeholder capitalism will only come about by removing the barriers to change. This is where governments come in. Businesses alone cannot bring about this realignment, so governments must work with business to allow them to pursue this new purpose sufficiently and resiliently by creating a regulatory environment that incentivises change and rewards positive societal impact.

Seizing the moment to elevate the levelling up agenda

In addition to global geopolitical issues, the Global Solutions Summit placed a spotlight on challenges at a local level. Regional inequality proved to be recurring theme, as one of the most vexing economic and societal challenges – with concentrations of great prosperity contrasted by left-behind regions struggling with weak economies, poor education, health inequality and other barriers to progress. ‘Levelling up’, currently a UK Government buzzword to address disparities across the country, has parallels across the G20 and beyond. They all require better solutions.

Recovery from COVID-19 provides a unique moment to “jump forward”, a bigger ambition than to “build back better”. But governments must radically shift how they prioritise spending. With infrastructure like transport treated as “investment” but technology and innovation treated as “expenditure”, the risk is that levelling up agendas fail to provide regions the tools to thrive in a new digital, green economy – and actually exacerbate inequality. Intellectual resources, as well as physical ones, are essential to narrow the global divide. And economic growth plans must focus on the jobs of the future as part of a just economy, not reviving jobs of the past.

Contact the FleishmanHillard UK International Affairs team

Michael Hartt, Partner and Head of International Affairs; Matthew Lowe, Account Director, International Affairs; Will King, Senior Account Executive, Corporate; Imogen Elliott, Graduate, Corporate. 

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