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Opinion: At this year's UN General Assembly, it's show up or become obsolete

Last year’s General Assembly was not just virtual in attendance. It was also virtual in substance. It showcased the world’s problems with beggar-thy-neighbor politics and evidence-light policymaking — even in the face of Covid-19’s historic, and shared, thread. Then-President Donald Trump was not the only guilty party.
The results of this failure to cooperate — through the UN, other institutions, and in general — have been clear: Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people globally in need of assistance rose by about 40% — up to 235 million — with financial instability, hunger, out-of-school children and gender inequity all on the rise worldwide.
At the 2021 UN General Assembly, there is no excuse for inaction. Eighteen months since the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, the world’s three major challenges — Covid-19, the climate crisis and conflict — call out for much stronger global leadership.
Afghanistan shows the human impact of these three interconnected crises. Even before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, the pandemic, climate-related drought and decades of conflict drove the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance to more than 18 million — nearly double in just a year. Afghans need more of the right kind of help.
Nearly 90% of humanitarian need is concentrated in just 20 countries. Here is what they need to hear from world leaders.
Biden announces US will increase funding to help developing nations confront the climate crisisBiden announces US will increase funding to help developing nations confront the climate crisis
Most pressing on the agenda is joining forces to halt the current wave of global Covid-19 cases, as the Delta variant in particular poses challenges to global defenses.
It’s clear that vaccines are the most effective line of defense against serious illness and death. They have, however, become the privilege of the rich — with the global vaccine partnership COVAX cutting its expected access to doses through the year’s end from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion.
In a race to defeat variants, the US, UK, and other countries are starting to offer booster shots to their citizens, while less than 2% of people in many of the countries the IRC deems most fragile from a humanitarian perspective have received even a single dose of any vaccine.
President Joe Biden made a bold commitment Wednesday to donate an additional 500 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines globally. But scaling up the supply of shots won’t solve the problem unless those shots get into the arms of people in need.
Biden called for diplomacy over conflict at the UN General Assembly. Here's how world leaders respondedBiden called for diplomacy over conflict at the UN General Assembly. Here's how world leaders responded
The weakness of national health systems means that in some fragile states, vaccine delivery costs more than four times as much as these countries spend on health care per person each year. Lack of capacity also makes it difficult to detect and respond to threats like new variants and clusters. For this General Assembly to be successful, the UN must recognize critical gaps in health systems — and channel funding to the frontline NGOs best placed to reach the most vulnerable.
President Biden also announced Wednesday new funding commitments toward vaccine distribution, but for distribution efforts to be successful, the international community must recognize critical gaps in health systems — and channel funding to the frontline NGOs best placed to reach the most vulnerable. Currently, just over 20% of humanitarian funding goes to NGOs, according to UN statistics, and that funding can take months to reach them.
The climate crisis is second on the docket. Just last month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on irreversible changes to our climate that UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “code red for humanity.” Yet, national commitments remain too small or nonexistent. The world cannot afford to have the US, China and others point fingers; top greenhouse-gas emitters need to step up, in support of both adaptation to the climate crisis and limiting emissions to mitigate it.
Brazilian health minister tests positive for Covid-19 while in New York for UN meetingBrazilian health minister tests positive for Covid-19 while in New York for UN meeting
Resources must be directed to programs that build “climate resilience,” preparing communities to confront the impacts of climate change. Needless to say, steps must also be taken to lessen greenhouse gas emissions, prevent environmental degradation and rebuild biodiversity. Communities need financial support and decision-making power to address their own unique challenges.
But these two crises — Covid-19 and climate — are only part of what the world faces.
The true test of the UN’s continued relevance is whether it can make a dent in the endemic conflict and violence driving humanitarian need, from Afghanistan to Yemen to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflict is the single biggest driver of hunger globally, according to the World Food Program. Likewise, the World Bank has warned that conflict is responsible for 80% of all humanitarian need.
Because of these three crises, progress toward the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals has stalled dramatically. Even before the pandemic, the IRC sounded the alarm that four out of five fragile and conflict-affected states were off track to meet the SDGs; that risk has only deepened as Covid-19 has fueled further insecurity.
Aside from the tragic backsliding in global development gains, this toxic mix of Covid, climate and conflict will make responding to future threats all the more difficult.
Nearly 60 years ago, US President John F. Kennedy proclaimed a “declaration of interdependence,” a recognition that the great challenges of the modern era could not be addressed through “the individual liberty of one,” but instead required common cause to protect “the indivisible liberty of all.” This month’s gathering at the UN should be a recommitment to that declaration of interdependence — to meeting shared challenges with collective action, not go-it-alone attitudes to the detriment of all.
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