The Technopolar Moment
How Digital Powers Will Reshape the Global Order
In August 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met aboard the USS Augusta in the waters off Newfoundland to discuss the war then raging in Europe and Asia. As they considered the future, the two leaders remembered the past. The deprivations and divisions fueled by World War I and the Great Depression, they knew, had eventually led to the devastation of World War II.
The president and the prime minister were determined not only to win the war but also to establish the foundation for a more durable peace. The Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt and Churchill released during this meeting, famously set out the two leaders’ grand vision for the postwar world. But one of its key areas of focus often goes overlooked: the charter promoted a global economic recovery designed to unleash a slow, steady convergence between wealthy and poor nations. The goal was to rebuild and industrialize countries, paving the way for a planet free from “fear and want.”
This past June, U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met on the United Kingdom’s Cornish coast to sign the “New Atlantic Charter.” It was one of many communiqués and commitments delivered by national leaders since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s gravest crisis since World War II. But in order to prevent a future crisis, the global community needs to go well beyond what these statements, including those the G-7 leaders recently released, have suggested is possible.
As it did in the throes of the 1940s, the world today needs an entirely new paradigm for global development. The failures of the current system have been thrown into stark relief by COVID-19, which has left the globe divided between countries with the ability to endure the pandemic and those that remain at its mercy. Unless the United States and other countries take courageous new steps to promote human security for all, this divergence will leave much of the planet mired in fear and want. Insecurity will eventually spread to every nation, leaving the globe increasingly vulnerable to climate change, future pandemics, and democratic backsliding.
The world can avoid such a fate. Today’s leaders have an opportunity to agree to a COVID charter that commits countries to take the steps necessary to vaccinate the entire world and prevent the consequences of climate change. Leaders in wealthier countries are already taking such steps at home, but to prevent the next crisis, their governments and those in lower-income countries will need to do the same in the developing world. To meet this moment, the United States and the rest of the world must commit to and implement a new global charter to ensure that humanity is equipped to tackle the daunting challenges ahead.
In the months that followed Roosevelt and Churchill’s meeting aboard the USS Augusta, American and British economic policymakers began planning for a postwar order that could ensure their militaries would never need to fight World War III. In July 1944, as fighting still raged in Normandy following the D-Day landings, U.S. and British officials welcomed representatives from 42 other countries to Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to create a multilateral system meant to restart growth, reopen trade, and react to crises.
One result was the Bretton Woods institutions, which were designed to industrialize and interconnect economies to avoid the divergence that had proved so costly before the war. The World Bank would lend resources to sovereign nations to rebuild and then establish the foundations for broader growth, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would put out economic fires before they grew and spread.
The United States played a leading role in helping propel global growth. Through the Marshall Plan, American officials invested more than $13 billion, equivalent to more than $150 billion today, to rebuild devastated industries and infrastructure in 16 countries across Europe. And then, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the U.S. Agency for International Development. Although some of its early optimism dimmed amid Cold War failures in Vietnam, USAID had real successes. For example, the agency’s partnership with South Korea helped build the agricultural and industrial juggernaut that powered that country’s economic miracle, which was even more astounding given the desolation just over the border in North Korea.
Unsurprisingly, these initiatives reflected the era’s state-centric mindset. Western leaders’ fear was that fascists, communists, or other radicals could ride economic discontent to power and subsequently create security threats for their neighbors and the wider world. To prevent another global war and promote stability, officials sought to modernize economies so each state could better provide for its citizenry.
To a significant degree, this strategy worked. The result was not just a recovery from World War II’s devastation in Europe and Asia but also a golden age of economic growth. From 1961 to 1970, developed economies grew at a robust rate of 5.0 percent each year. Middle classes blossomed, a baby boom ensued, and social safety nets were strung up. The growth was fueled in part by gains in less advanced economies, which were growing at an average of 5.5 percent annually thanks to technology transfers, private investment, and aid.
At the end of the twentieth century, convergence really gained speed. From 1995 to 2015, a period the economist Steven Radelet has called “the great surge,” developing countries’ real GDPs grew at an average rate of 4.7 percent per year—considerably faster than those of their advanced counterparts. Much of this boom was driven by China and other East Asian states, but it also included tremendous gains in Africa and South America. Over the same time period, more than one billion people were lifted out of poverty.
Yet despite this progress, the global development agenda has struggled to adapt to the needs of a changing world. Transnational crises such as pandemics, global economic recessions, and climate change have wreaked havoc on the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. The world has grown more interconnected, which has boosted growth—but it has also left many people exposed to these crises. Some countries’ GDPs have continued to soar, even as many of their citizens still lack health care, education, food, and other essentials.
Due in part to global development, the world today has to worry far less about rogue fascist or communist states bent on igniting World War III. Instead, some of the most significant and urgent global risks stem from vulnerabilities in an interconnected world. Poor governance in failing states can destabilize regions and create havens for terrorists, as the world saw in Afghanistan. Global economic shocks, as during the financial crisis of 2008, can quickly create massive food security challenges in many lower-income countries. And insufficient state health-care investments can allow contagious pathogens to destabilize regions and even the world, as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and the Zika virus did in recent decades.
Development professionals have responded to these challenges by focusing on “human security,” which shifted the focus of development away from state-level growth and toward individual citizens. The United Nations defines human security as people having “freedom from fear and freedom from want, with an equal opportunity to enjoy all their rights and fully develop their human potential.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which laid out 17 specific goals to finally end poverty and improve health, education, gender equity, and environmental sustainability by 2030. These SDGs, which were approved by global leaders in 2015, reflected not just development’s success but also its growing ambition and focus.
As it did in the throes of the 1940s, the world today needs an entirely new paradigm for global development.
But the global development model was too limited, static, state-centric, and underresourced to achieve this historic initiative. The Bretton Woods institutions, which have long served as a pillar of growth and stability, are ultimately funded by states to serve the interests of other states. If a low- or middle-income government is unable, or unwilling, to respond to the challenges facing vulnerable people and communities, their needs too often go unmet. Or if an advanced economy objects to one state’s or one region’s development plans, those initiatives are often delayed or left unfunded altogether. As a result, in an era defined by faster-moving transnational challenges, these institutions have remained dedicated to legacy missions and have often lacked the necessary resources and flexibility to do more.
Some transnational problems also proved impossible for markets, governments, or multinational institutions alone to address. Although public-private partnerships have demonstrated some success in responding to those failures, particularly in public health, these accomplishments have yet to be replicated at scale. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, brought together pharmaceutical companies, public health experts, and national officials to help the world turn the tide against an incredibly disruptive virus. In addition, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, rallied industry, governments, and scientists to immunize 822 million children in 77 countries over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, these partnerships—and their successes—have been too few and far between. For example, despite new technological advances, neither markets nor governments have been able to provide reliable access to electricity around the world. Eight hundred million people still lived in the dark in 2018.
The system has also been challenged by one of its successes. China’s rise was made possible by a global economic system that promoted convergence—but that country’s own model of global development has not always been shaped by the lessons learned over the last 80 years. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese institutions have funded massive and much-needed projects in Africa, Central Asia, and eastern Europe. In many instances, these projects have helped states build indispensable infrastructure. But in others, the initiatives, which have ignored best practices on debt sustainability, anticorruption, and environmental stewardship, proved less beneficial to human security than was possible.
The inability of the global development model to address the realities of the twenty-first century has become more evident with every passing year. When the world sought to prevent pandemics after the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa or made agreements in Paris in 2015 to combat climate change, it did not commit the resources or reforms necessary to meet those goals. And as inequality grew in the United States and other advanced countries, populists such as Donald Trump, Brexit’s promoters, and others gained the power to undermine foreign aid and multilateralism. The stage was set for disaster and divergence.
The world was already seriously vulnerable when COVID-19 hit. But the failure to launch a robust development response to the pandemic has only made it more so. Global growth shrank by 4.4 percent in 2020 and has been gutted by another $11 trillion this year. Progress on the SDGs has also been set back. It is projected that the pandemic pushed around 100 million people into extreme poverty last year—the first rise in two decades. Such a significant increase in poverty is driving humanity to the brink: the UN World Food Program has estimated that more than 270 million people are at risk of starvation, double the pre-pandemic figure.
Although economic strength may not have determined how well a country mitigated the health and economic effects of the pandemic in its first year, as the economist Angus Deaton has argued, it appears certain to dictate long-term performance. Advanced countries, including the United States, have been able to provide their economies with fiscal and monetary stimulus packages equal to about 24 percent of their GDPs, according to the IMF. Lower-income countries could not take such steps: emerging economies have enacted fiscal and monetary stimulus measures equal to only six percent of their GDPs, on average, and low-income countries have mustered less than two percent.
The global development agenda has struggled to adapt to the needs of a changing world.
Foreign assistance has been insufficient to close this resource gap. Although advanced countries committed more than $161.2 billion in foreign aid in 2020, that figure represented just a 3.5 percent increase over the previous year and only one percent of what those countries spent on stimulus at home. Meanwhile, although the IMF has increased its lending to low-income countries, loans delivered by the World Bank and other multilateral institutions was far less robust in 2020, especially when compared with the significant response to the 2008 financial crisis.
These economic divides promise to widen in the months and years ahead, as advanced countries have also been able to afford to purchase hundreds of millions of vaccine doses, while poorer countries have been forced to wait or go without. Covax, the global initiative to supplement national vaccine programs in the developing world, has been seeking to achieve only a 27 percent vaccination rate in low- and middle-income countries this year. That is a long way away from the 70 percent global immunization rate that experts consider necessary to provide sufficient immunity to defeat the virus. As of mid-July, only 37 percent of the population in South America, 26 percent in Asia, and three percent in Africa had received at least one vaccine dose.
As a result, human insecurity is on the rise as poverty, hunger, and sickness wreak havoc on the lives of millions of people across the globe. The question is not whether the developing world is going to fall further behind more advanced economies but how far—and whether it will be able to recover. Before the crisis, the IMF expected 110 emerging and developing economies to converge with the advanced economies between 2020 and 2022; now, it estimates that 58 of those countries will lose ground. Many experts—including Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the IMF, and Janet Yellen, the U.S. treasury secretary—are now warning of “a great divergence.” This is the result of a “business as usual” approach in the development world, and it cannot be allowed to continue.
Citizens of wealthy countries should not labor under the illusion that this is simply a sad story happening to people in faraway countries. The great divergence poses a tremendous risk to every nation.
People around the world are growing not just poorer but also less secure. One statistic is particularly harrowing: more than 500 million additional people are projected to have fallen below the expanded poverty line since 2020, meaning that they live on less than $5.50 per day. In many parts of the world, these people represent the wage labor in the workforce, which serves as the foundation of the economic pyramid that many below aspire to join and on which many above depend for labor and consumer spending. With so many falling below that threshold, the wage-labor community is no longer able to serve as a driver of inclusive growth.
Without significant development interventions, increased poverty and suffering will be a decades-long problem. Due to shrinking access to health care, people are at a greater risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 or another disease. The virus has also transformed the global economy, leaving behind those whose jobs could not be done remotely or who lacked the electricity or Internet connectivity required to go online. Unsurprisingly, the job market will not quickly recover in the developing world: the International Labor Organization has projected that the pandemic will keep 200 million people, disproportionately women, unemployed next year.
This level of human insecurity will eventually increase global instability. When governments struggle to meet the needs of their citizens, more people are likely to express discontent at home or migrate to neighboring states. And history includes many examples of struggling states fighting wars to capture limited resources, to stop spillover effects from other states, or simply to distract from troubles at home.
Some transnational problems proved impossible for markets, governments, or multinational institutions alone to address.
The great divergence will also undermine the global response to climate change. Even before the pandemic, the world was failing to take the actions necessary to limit global warming as agreed to in Paris. The planet has seen the acceleration of climate impacts, which have proved worse for the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, limiting climate change will require action from all states—and the world is too divided for easy consensus. And for lower-income countries to do their part, combating climate change must be tied to advances for their most vulnerable citizens.
As transnational crises become more frequent, the world’s have-nots will be drawn into a vicious cycle. Take the story of Rafael Córdova, a 50-year-old man who lives near Lima, Peru, and worked in the human resources department of a municipal government before the pandemic. According to The New York Times, this father of three was able to provide for his family; he and his wife were expecting twins when the pandemic struck. But in May 2020, Córdova became one of the more than two million people in Peru to fall ill from COVID-19. He lost his job, and after his wife tested positive for the virus and gave birth prematurely, they lost one of the twins.
In short order, Córdova’s and his family’s prospects bottomed out. With no job and a national economy in free fall, he could not pay the rent, purchase the cell phone plan that was his older children’s only link to their closed school, or even find the funds for a proper burial for his daughter. Eventually, Córdova moved to a squatter’s camp on a hill near Lima overlooking the Pacific coast, where he drew a square in the dirt to define “his” land.
Córdova will not be alone. These personal tragedies will grow in number the longer the great divergence persists. The twin threats of COVID-19 and climate change will hurt the most vulnerable first and worst. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the climate crisis could displace 1.2 billion people by 2050. The world is already being battered by more contagious variants of COVID-19, and low rates of vaccination in many developing countries will ensure that these mutations continue to grow even more dangerous. The Delta variant is already hammering unvaccinated countries and threatening the recovery in advanced countries; it or another mutation could kill millions and squander all the investment and effort that have been dedicated to ending the pandemic.
When Roosevelt and Churchill wrote the Atlantic Charter, they knew they had to look beyond the immediate crisis to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful future. Today’s leaders should show as much ambition and foresight. They must aim not just to end the pandemic but also to make the post-pandemic world durable enough to prevent another transnational crisis from appearing in its wake.
The world’s nations should launch a COVID charter, which should make clear that the transnational crises affecting the most vulnerable pose the greatest near-term risk to international stability. The charter must place human security at the top of the twenty-first-century development agenda. That is the only way to effectively respond to COVID-19 and climate change, which can target vulnerable people whether in Lima, Lusaka, or Lincoln, Nebraska.
As the pandemic still rages, it may appear impossible to forge such ambitious cooperation among countries. Populism and nationalism were growing in strength even before the world ever heard of COVID-19, and their adherents will surely resist new global commitments today. Competition among states—especially between China and the United States—risks distracting international attention and making the world miss this crucial moment for concerted action.
But this is no time to give in to despair. Political developments across the globe have opened a window of opportunity to take the sort of bold actions required to end this great divergence. In Washington, Biden has shown that he is seriously committed to and capable of global leadership—his administration’s boost to vaccine donations abroad and support for multilateral action have been essential to recent progress on the pandemic response. China is also making an ambitious play for global leadership, and its ability to help shape the response to the pandemic could be a key indicator of whether it is ready for that role. In Europe, officials are eager to make progress on climate change to ward off catastrophe.
Most important, the pandemic has evolved. Advanced countries may have vaccinated a good portion of their citizens against the virus, but they can’t ignore the threat of variants abroad. Stock markets drop at every report of a new mutation, and every day that passes increases the risk that yet another more transmissible, deadlier strain of the virus will appear. Analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation, where I am president, has suggested that until a sufficient percentage of the populations in emerging and developing countries have been vaccinated, which may take another 18 months or longer, variants will be four to six times as likely to develop in largely unvaccinated countries as in highly vaccinated ones. Until the pandemic is over in the developing world, any recovery in advanced countries will be fragile. The leaders of those countries can thus promote development assistance as an investment in protecting their own citizens and their own domestic economies from a resurgence of the pandemic.
To protect everyone from the dual threats of the pandemic and climate change, the world must commit to a COVID charter for bold, measurable actions that boost human security. This plan begins with restarting convergence: the world must urgently close a resource gap of trillions of dollars in developing and emerging economies.
The world was already seriously vulnerable when COVID-19 hit.
A COVID charter must include at least five commitments. First, the advanced economies must agree to devote at least one percent of their GDPs to foreign aid, which would increase development assistance by around $100 billion. These pledges would reverse the damaging political trend—most recently seen in the United Kingdom—of countries abrogating previous aid commitments. This new initiative should champion environmental sustainability, fight corruption, and promote real employment opportunities within local economies.
Second, this foreign aid commitment from developed countries could be made as part of a framework agreement with developing economies, whereby those economies pledge to strengthen their own capacities. Leaders in low- and middle-income countries must commit to taking responsibility for vaccinating their populations and rebuilding their economies in an inclusive way. They should also commit to achieving a much greater level of domestic resource mobilization. Right now, low-income countries raise government revenue equivalent, on average, to less than 14 percent of GDP, whereas middle-income countries are nearing 20 percent. The target in the charter could be at least 25 percent, which, when combined with continued economic growth, would produce trillions of dollars over several years in financing to protect vulnerable populations.
Third, shareholders and institutional leaders must commit to reimagining the Bretton Woods architecture to respond to the twin crises. During recent efforts to expand emergency aid in Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and West Africa, the Bretton Woods institutions struggled to innovate at the necessary scale and with the necessary urgency. The same has been true over the last year. But with aggressive leadership and creative reforms, these institutions can prove central to ending the great divergence. The IMF under the leadership of Georgieva has been the most adaptive during the pandemic. It is currently moving forward with a plan to issue $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights, which can augment member countries’ official reserves. If shareholders agree to what is known as “recycling,” these SDRs could provide $100 billion to support vaccinations and promote a green recovery—and as long as the great divergence persists, the IMF could use this same method again to inject greater liquidity into developing economies.
The resources of the World Bank and other multilateral development banks should also be more aggressively deployed. At a time of historically low interest rates, these banks could all raise and lend an additional $1 trillion by modernizing their capital adequacy requirements to enable greater leverage. Furthermore, by embracing innovative financing solutions—for example, raising new resources from public and private donors in the form of grant capital and guarantees—these institutions could offer far more attractive terms to borrowers than they do with their typical commercial products. These and other initiatives would enable the banks to more effectively mobilize private resources toward their mission.
The United States can lead the world in its recovery from the present crisis.
Fourth, private-sector and philanthropic leaders should commit to working with governments to help vaccinate the globe and jump-start a green recovery. In recent decades, public-private partnerships have demonstrated a special ability to solve global problems and correct market failures. To meet these crises and prevent others, the world needs to expand these partnerships to fully unlock the latest in science, technology, and innovation for the world's most vulnerable, who have historically been the last to benefit from new advances.
GAVI has already been tremendously successful in immunizing the world’s children, and its remit should be expanded to produce and distribute the vaccines required to end the pandemic. The World Health Organization and private and philanthropic players, meanwhile, should seek to prevent future pandemics by integrating epidemiological, medical, and other data and establishing an early warning and response system. Similar well-resourced public-private collaborations will be needed to transform global food systems and enable climate-friendly electrification across the world.
One of the great advances in global development over the last few decades has been the increased rigor in measuring and reporting results. And so fifth, all the signatories of the COVID charter should commit to having their inputs and outcomes measured in ways that are consistent with the principles agreed on at the 2011 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, held in Busan, South Korea, and to having their work regularly monitored by the G-7, the G-20, and the UN Security Council.
By realizing a COVID charter, the world could leverage what would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars—a relatively small commitment given the scope of the challenge—into trillions of dollars of impact for the world’s most vulnerable communities. Such an investment would represent a transformational recommitment to human security and the SDGs, giving people and countries all over the world the opportunity to survive and thrive in the years ahead.
The world was still in the midst of a crisis when Roosevelt and Churchill sailed home from Newfoundland, but they departed with a shared commitment to trying to make it better. Eighty years later, the world’s leaders can once again promote convergence and cooperate to reduce fear and want in the world. With the next G-20 summit set to take place this fall in Rome, there is not a moment to lose in beginning the work of launching this diplomatic initiative.
Today is a time of incredible risk, and taking the path of least resistance could have existential consequences. But it is also—for the first time in a long time—a moment of real opportunity. With the steps that the Biden administration has already taken, it is now possible to imagine an end to the pandemic and the great divergence. By taking bold actions now, the United States can lead the world in its recovery from the present crisis and also set the stage for a more durable, prosperous, and inclusive future.
Think about Córdova, living in a country battered by COVID-19 and severely threatened by climate change. If these initiatives are enacted, he could get a vaccine in time for the next variant that sweeps across South America. He could afford a new cell phone plan, which would allow him to get back to work and his children to get back to school. And with projects to slow climate change, he may avoid future displacement and economic shocks.
Even if the life of one person may seem small in the sweep of history, Córdova is a reminder of the benefits of improving human security across the globe. A COVID charter would represent—like the Atlantic Charter did—hope for him and billions of others amid one of the worst crises in nearly 80 years. If realized, the charter’s commitments would not just empower these people to survive COVID-19. It would also usher in a new era of global cooperation in which the world again promotes convergence and ensures each individual’s basic rights—to be free from fear and want.
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