The decision by the UK government at the end of 2020 to go back on its commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas development assistance – reducing it to 0.5% – has been widely criticised. First achieved in 2013, the UN target was embodied in UK law in 2015.
Of the 43 richer nations counted by the OECD as providing overseas development assistance (ODA) – defined as aid specifically aimed at reducing poverty in low-income countries – only five now provide 0.7% of GDP or more. The World Bank estimates that the Covid-19 crisis pushed around 120 million people around the world into extreme poverty, with almost all governments pushed into higher debt and their development plans severely retarded.
While many are calling for aid to low-income countries to be increased, others argue that the concept of aid from rich to poor nations is outdated, not least because the majority of the world’s poor no longer live in the lowest-income countries. Proponents of the concept of ‘Global Public Investment’ are attempting to forge a new multilateral approach to investing in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ending poverty, opening up decision making to include the poor. Calls for a Global Green New Deal also embody this idea.
It is now widely expected that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will create $650 billion in new international money to help low-income countries recover out of the pandemic. So-called ‘Special Drawing Rights’ or SDRs (which countries can draw on from the IMF) could help support both vaccination and health care programmes and infrastructure investment – particularly in green projects and ‘nature-based solutions’ – in the global South.
Under current IMF rules SDRs mainly go to richer countries (including China), so this programme will require them to ‘donate’ their allocations back to the IMF to reallocate to poorer ones, particularly in Africa. Many people are now arguing that this redistribution should be written into the IMF’s rules to ensure it is permanent. Others are calling for a larger SDR issuance as part of stronger support for a global green and resilient recovery.
For many low-income countries, the Covid-19 crisis has further damaged already struggling economies. 52 countries are currently experiencing a debt crisis, where the size of debt payments undermines the government’s ability to protect the basic economic and social rights of its citizens. A further 100 plus countries are considered at risk. 2020 saw a huge flight of overseas capital from developing economies.
Since May 2020 the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), initiated by the rich G20 countries, with the World Bank and IMF, has postponed debt repayments for some of the poorest countries during the pandemic. Many indebted countries are however choosing not to take part, for fear of this impacting on their sovereign credit rating and therefore the costs of future debt.
There are now widespread calls for a more comprehensive package of debt relief for the poorest and most indebted countries. One possibility is that this could be funded by earmarking the rise in the value of gold reserves over recent years. Innovative proposals have also been put forward to combine debt relief with environmental action, where countries agree to ‘swap’ debt relief for quantifiable commitments to reduce deforestation or enhance conservation.
One of the most insistent criticisms of trade agreements has been in relation to their impacts on the environment. International trade is of its nature carbon-generating, as goods are transported around the world. But trade agreements can also open up new markets for commodities produced in unsustainable ways, from fish to palm oil, tropical timber to cement.
Many people therefore argue that environmental protection should be a core principle of trade agreements. Indeed, trade deals could be a powerful mechanism to promote stronger commitments on climate change or biodiversity conservation, rather than weaker ones.
One proposal gaining increased attention is for ‘border carbon adjustment’. This would enable countries with strong climate policies to impose tariffs on imports of goods from countries with lower standards. This would ensure that trade did not become a ‘race to the bottom’ in which lower standards were effectively incentivised. But many developing countries are worried that any such border tax could simply turn into a form of trade protectionism which froze them out of developed country markets.
As the UK embarks on agreeing new trade agreements, there are increasing calls for such deals to be designed around clear principles of public interest, not simply on increasing the volume of trade as an end in itself. Many for example argue that trade deals should be used to protect and enhance labour and environmental standards, rather than to reduce them.
With the final Brexit deal rushed through Parliament at the last minute, there have been calls for MPs to have a much stronger scrutiny role in future, and for trade unions to be involved in agreement design where labour standards are at stake. More widely there are calls for the World Trade Organisation to be reformed to focus on major global challenges and greater accountability.
Leaving the EU means the UK needs to negotiate many new trade agreements – indeed the freedom to do so was one of the main arguments used in favour of Brexit.
Trade deals are no longer only, or even mainly, about reducing tariffs. They primarily focus now on reducing other ‘barriers to trade’, for example by aligning national regulations in areas such as product standards, professional qualifications and environmental protections.
Trade deal proposals are therefore often highly controversial, with many fearing they will lead to a lowering of existing standards and protections. The UK’s early discussions with the US around a post-Brexit deal were a case in point, with warnings that it would lead to the arrival of chlorinated chicken on UK shelves or the risk of further privatisation in the NHS.
One of the elements of trade agreements which has led to particular opposition is the widespread use of ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS). This is a mechanism under which a company from one signatory state investing in another can argue that new laws or regulations could negatively affect its expected profits or investment potential, and seek compensation in a binding (and often secret) arbitration tribunal. This effectively elevates the rights of corporations above a country’s democratic right to decide its own laws.
Over recent years many countries have reduced their tax rates on businesses, hoping to attract inward investment from multinational corporations. But this can easily lead to a ‘race to the bottom’, in which tax competition leaves all countries with lower revenues. Low-income countries are hurt the most, and corporations are the beneficiaries.
Multinationals anyway find it easy to avoid high tax rates by ‘profit shifting’ and ‘transfer pricing’, the creative accounting methods by which profits are allocated to the countries and states where taxes are lowest. It is estimated that this costs governments globally up to 10% (approximately $240bn) of corporate tax revenues every year, money that could have been spent on public services, or that must instead be found from smaller businesses and citizens. Some large multinationals pay almost no corporate taxes in the UK (and other countries) at all.
At the same time both corporations and wealthy individuals have been able to make extensive of tax havens, usually small nations which seek to attract foreign capital by exempting it from tax altogether.
Proposals for international tax cooperation coordinated by the OECD have been given a boost by President Biden’s commitment to internationally agreed minimum corporation tax rates. At the G7 Summit in 2021, finance ministers agreed in principle to a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%, marking major progress in the taxation of multinational companies.
A number of proposals have also been made for national taxes on multinationals, and for closing tax havens.
Covid-19 vaccination programmes in most low-income countries have been proceeding much more slowly than in richer countries. This is both because of lack of finance, and because most of the available supply has been bought by the global North. It is generally accepted that the pandemic will only end when almost everyone in the world is vaccinated, since without this there will be a high risk of new variants being transmitted across borders. Universal vaccination will also hasten global economic recovery. But in practice ‘vaccine nationalism’ has so far dominated.
Many proposals for reform focus on the dominant private sector-led model of vaccine development and supply, which it is argued puts profit and the retention of intellectual property rights ahead of meeting human need.
Before the G7 Summit in 2021, the US had signalled its support for patents on Covid vaccines to be temporarily waived in order to facilitate their production in the Global South. But Germany, the EU and the UK resisted this. Instead, vaccines will be bought from pharmaceutical firms using public money and then donated to lower income countries.
New international frameworks for financing and developing vaccines, medicines and health services in the global South have been proposed.
The global spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the interconnected nature of today’s world. But the international response has not been equal, with huge differences in the capacities of high income and low income countries to control the spread of the coronavirus and to pay for vaccination programmes. The disparities have highlighted the need for a stronger system of international cooperation and equity, not just in the health field but across a range of issues.
Many of the world’s most pressing problems cannot be solved by national action alone. They include global poverty and security; climate change; the protection of the oceans; and the regulation and taxation of transnational corporations operating across national boundaries. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted at the United Nations in 2015, embody the international community’s economic, social and environmental priorities.
Over recent years international cooperation has been in decline, particularly in multilateral fora such as the United Nations and the G20. The return of great power rivalries, particularly between the US and China, along with the impact of economic weakness and Brexit on the unity and reputation of the European Union, have led to a fracturing of international relations. The UK government, for its part, has declared a new post-Brexit vision of a ‘Global Britain’, but what this should mean is not always clear.
In this context a wide range of voices have been calling for a revival of international and multilateral cooperation and for a new, positive role for the UK.
In the decade before the pandemic, public sector pay fell behind the rising cost of living, so that in real terms public sector workers earned £900 less per year in 2020 than they did in 2010. Some workers have seen particularly sharp falls in pay, including teachers (£1349), local government residential care workers (almost £1900), firefighters (£2508) and early career nurses (over £3000).
In this context, the Government’s recent restraint on public sector pay has attracted criticism. First, many claim it undervalues the work of millions of public sector key workers who have already seen a decade of pay cuts. Second, economists of all stripes have questioned the wisdom of cutting wages while simultaneously trying to stimulate economic recovery. Third, some fear public sector pay restraint will exacerbate inequalities, as women and those living in poorer regions of the UK are disproportionately likely to work in the public sector.
The longer-term issue is building public sector capacity. Before the pandemic, public sector wages had fallen to a 25 year low relative to the private sector. At the same time, funding cuts have led to increased pressures on workers, further exacerbating recruitment and retention difficulties. In the short-term, pain in the private sector labour market and heightened interest in public service are likely to ease recruitment problems. Without efforts to reverse longer-term trends, however, we risk further undermining public sector expertise - leading to increased reliance on outsourcing - and failing to rebuild resilient public services after Covid-19.