Onset of COVID-19 pandemic boosts support for international cooperation

Initial results of a UN initiative to help decide the future direction of the Organization have revealed overwhelming support for international cooperation, which has grown significantly since COVID-19 began spreading around the world.

The data, gathered from hundreds of conversations, and an online survey involving some 186 countries, form part of the United Nations’ 75th anniversary initiative (UN75). Launched in January 2020, this is the largest exercise mounted by the Organization to gather public opinion and crowdsource solutions to global challenges.

The results show that around 95 per cent of respondents – across all age groups and education levels – agree that countries need to work together to manage global issues. This almost unanimous response saw a noticeable uptick from the end of February onwards, as the spread of COVID-19 began to cause major upheaval to health systems, the economy, and social norms. 

Unsurprisingly, the issue of health risks ranked high  on the list of concerns raised by respondents, having risen sharply since early March.

Cecilia Cannon is an academic advisor for the UN, and part of the team putting together the UN75 report. In an interview with UN News, she said that COVID-19 is a stark reminder of the need for the world to work together, and “a preview of the global catastrophe we are marching headlong into if we don’t find better ways to work together.”

“Even before COVID-19 began wreaking socio-economic havoc across the globe,” she added, “the global challenges and trends requiring cooperation across borders were mounting: forced displacement; new challenges presented by technology; environmental degradation, change and disaster; health risks, to name just a few.”

Encouraging open conversation, in an increasingly polarized world

The initiative, says Ms. Cannon, is being held at a time of “waning global cooperation, and a growing unwillingness of people to engage in dialogue with one another, especially with those who hold divergent views and opinions from their own.”

“At the global level”, she said, “we see this when disagreement among Member States is swiftly discredited as a failure of, or a retreat from, multilateralism, rather than a necessary part of it. And, at the local level, we are seeing increasing polarization within societies: social media today has made it so easy to un-follow, un-friend or block someone who disagrees with you. Despite our connectivity, our worlds and worldviews are becoming smaller and smaller, and we are seeing increasing intolerance, hate speech and polarization within our societies and politics.”

The UN75 initiative is an effort to counter this trend, and encourage sincere, open, respectful, and rigorous discussion and debate about global challenges, and how we should address them. António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, expressed his hope that the 75-year milestone would be an opportunity for “reflection on the multi-lateral cooperation the world needs at this time, both in addressing the immediate pandemic and in achieving the longer-term goals for which the United Nations was founded.”

Bringing millions of voices to the discussion

The UN75 is hoping to bring the diverse views and opinions of millions of people into this discussion. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has made face-to-face dialogue all but impossible, the initiative has become more popular, gathering many more respondents, a reflection of the importance of the issue of international cooperation during a crisis that is being felt all over the world.

“We are now working with youth, civil society, business, universities, think tanks, schools, media, tech, and other partners to increase digital and broadcast dialogues and to find innovative ways to engage audiences”, says Ms. Cannon.

“We’re also honing our strategy to engage people in harder-to-reach areas, including those who are not connected through the Internet. This includes working with telecom companies and UN partners, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), to collect survey responses via text message and over the telephone, and in-person, where COVID-19 health guidelines and regulations permit.”

Those who took part were also asked to propose ideas for strengthening international cooperation: potential solutions include the development of more effective partnerships with civil society and the private sector, and greater involvement of women, youth, indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups in policy-making. 

What is UN75?

Launched by the UN Secretary-General, the UN’s 75th anniversary initiative (UN75) has a strong focus on listening to the global public, especially young people.

The UN75 team is gathering public perspectives on global challenges, and solutions on how to tackle them, through a one-minute survey (in 53 languages) and dialogues – now overwhelmingly online – organised by partners across the world.

Other data will be collected through polling, academic research, and media and social media analysis, in some 70 countries.

The results will be presented at the official commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, in September 2020, after which UN75 will focus on how best to take them forward, with a final report to be published in January 2021.