Responding to crises: From relief and resilience to resolution

When elephants fight, the grass suffers.

According to an African proverb, when elephants fight, the grass suffers. In other words, when the big and powerful fight, it is the small who suffer. At UNU-WIDER’s recent conference, Responding to Crises, the focus of the debate was primarily on the grass — the often consciousness-shocking ill-effects of the multiplying global challenges we are currently confronting in an ever-expanding range of policy fields.

Of critical importance are concerns about humanitarian assistance, increasing the coping capacity and resilience of local communities, preventing human rights abuses, and returning fragile societies to a developmental path. These require massive efforts at both research and practical-political levels. However, let us not forget why the grass — that is, local communities in many parts of the world — is suffering. Let us not forget the elephants, and think beyond relief and resilience, to the resolution of at least some of the global crises we are confronted with. Let us explore whether the present crises have a common root cause.

My answer to this question is, ‘Yes, they do.’

World crises can be viewed as global public goods

Numerous global challenges possess the properties of a public good: they are non-rivalrous in consumption and non-excludable or, at least, difficult to be made excludable. Given their often worldwide reach, they can be considered global public goods (GPGs).

Moreover, many challenges are also public in provision: numerous state and non-state actors in several or all parts of the world will need to contribute, willingly or unwillingly, in order for a good to be provided at a level deemed adequate or desirable by all or some of these actors.

Therefore, one could conjecture that, at present, we are not good at handling GPG-type challenges. There appear to be two main reasons for this: multipolarity and dual actor failure.

(1) Multipolarity: The conventional major powers still find it difficult to accept that in GPG-related policy fields marked by deep policy or provision interdependence, power politics are losing their teeth. They would need to be replaced by justice and fairness of both process and outcome if international cooperation is to work and be effective. International cooperation in globally challenged areas would perhaps now be more appropriately viewed and modelled as a political market — a market that presently appears to suffer from serious failures, including the inability to reach mutually beneficial agreements.

(2) Dual actor (market and state) failure in the presence of GPGs: Internationally, states are individual actors pursuing particular, national interests. As such, they too tend to free-ride in the presence of a public good. However, their unwillingness or hesitance to cooperate is often also an expression of political opposition.

Watch Inge Kaul's presentation at the conference.

Developing countries may shy away from entering into an agreement to avoid continuing attempts at top-down power politics. The conventional major powers may retreat into minilateral ‘clubs’ when it is difficult for them to get ‘their way’ in multilateral forums. As a result, we see numerous small-scale, isolated responses to global challenges, but rarely decisive action aimed at resolution. Moreover, related financing offered by the ‘donor’ countries to developing nations is all too often taken out of the limited envelope of official development assistance to the detriment of both development assistance and GPG provision — a fact that further undermines the resolution of challenges.

What we sometimes ignore

Therefore, what scholars and practitioners in aid community-centered conferences occasionally ignore is fairness. In other words, we have glossed over states’ failure to foster fairness and justice of process and outcome in policy fields of interdependences.

We have entered a new age of international cooperation in which we have to be prepared for: (i) relief operations; (ii) the strengthening of resilience; (iii) meeting the as-yet unfinished agenda of national capacity-building and development; and (iv) providing GPGs. Confounding these agendas, as we often do today, will give rise to inefficiencies and ineffectiveness and keep the world trapped in the present downward spiral of global crises.

Who but UNU-WIDER would be better equipped to help develop a systematic theory of global public policy, focusing on the differences and the synergy between the ever-more important global challenge, national development, and crisis prevention and management agendas. We need to consider ways of working towards resolutions for those fighting elephants, while also helping the grass grow greener by addressing the suffering of local communities. With its wide network of expertise, UNU-WIDER is well placed to do just that — after all, the institute’s motto is ‘Think WIDER’!

Inge Kaul is adjunct professor at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, Germany and advisor to various governmental, multilateral and non-profit organizations on policy options to meet global challenges, including new and innovative ways of international cooperation finance and global-issue diplomacy. For a more detailed discussion on the issues raised in this blog, please see her website or her edited book, Global Public Goods, in particular its review article.

The views expressed in this paper 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.