A Political Lens on Multilateralism without the US and China on COVID-19

This ongoing series of commentaries has been focussing a political lens on how COVID-19 is stimulating the multi-stakeholder dimensions of a changing world order.   Emphasis in this series is on three themes: (1) the extent to which global efforts are or are not bringing all key actors together, (2) the apparently deliberate absence of any momentum to create new institutions; and (3) the transformative implications of a growing array of different kinds of stakeholders for any future institution-building.  In the past couple of months, there has been useful momentum on all three themes. Here are some reflections on recent developments at the World Health Assembly and the Coronavirus Global Response initiative.  However, even as we look forward to yet another milestone event on 27 June 2020, the “final” pledging summit for COVID-19 with a uniquely multi-stakeholder appeal, one must also speak up about the harmfulness of a disintegrating US-China relationship for truly inclusive multi-stakeholder collaboration.  

The Diverging US and Chinese Positions at the World Health Organization

On 18 May 2020, the same day that the World Health Assembly convened in remote fashion, the escalating clash between the US and China was on vivid display. From one corner of the world, the Chinese head of state personally announced a two billion dollar pledge to the WHO for the coronavirus pandemic. And from the other corner of the world, the American head of state personally sent a letter to the WHO Director-General announcing his plans to suspend permanently the American contributions to the WHO.

On the pandemic itself, the May 2020 World Health Assembly illustrates the dangers of aggravation. An investigation into the origins in China and the subsequent worldwide spread of the pandemic was first promoted by the government of Australia. The Chinese countered by slapping excessively high tariffs on both beef and barley imported from Australia. However, the proposal for an investigation was taken on by the European Union; it was then transformed into a carefully worded and widely supported resolution (final version available here) on the WHO’s own role in the pandemic.  With key phrases highlighted below, the resolution  requests the WHO Director-General to:

Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19, including (i) the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal; (ii) the functioning of the International Health Regulations (IHR) and the status of implementation of the relevant recommendations of the previous IHR Review Committees; (iii) WHO’s contribution to United Nations-wide efforts; and (iv) the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, and make recommendations to improve global pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response capacity, including through strengthening, as appropriate, WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme…. (Op. 9.10, A73/CONF.1/1Rev.1, 18 May 2020.)

The main point here is that the resolution has numerous references to the phrase “as appropriate”. In the debate on the resolution, the general consensus was that this was not the time to initiate the evaluation. Many (but not all) governments expressed the view that it was best to wait until the pandemic had been brought under control. But the language does not exactly say that. It could happen at whatever time the Director-General concludes is an “appropriate” moment.

The Chinese president’s keynote address, nonetheless, emphasized support for this investigation only after the pandemic has been brought under control. It should be further noted that the Chinese had been especially resistant to being targeted and only supported the resolution when its sponsors assured China that any future evaluation would be led by the WHO and would focus on the WHO role, with no mention of the Chinese origin of the virus.

American support of the resolution was also uncertain until the last minute. In the end, the US (statement available here) did not block the consensus on passing it. But the US position urged that the evaluation of the WHO response should “start immediately” and not wait until the pandemic is over.  The American president, of course, had his own problems with the resolution – and with the WHO generally. That infamous letter announced a 30-day ultimatum for the WHO to reform itself or forfeit all US support, just as the Assembly was under way. This effectively undercut the video statement (available here) by the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex M. Azar, III, where he reiterated the American position that “the WHO must change” but did not mention a deadline for this. Ultimately, furthermore, the US president ignored his own ultimatum and announced a suspension of all funds for the WHO on 29 May, just eleven days later.

Secretary Azar’s statement, meanwhile, boasted that the US had committed $8 billion to benefit the global response for COVID-19 – without itemizing where this was actually going (although clearly none of it was going to the WHO). This is in contrast to the $2 billion for COVID-19 for the WHO to receive that President Xi announced in his 18 May keynote address.  The US number, by the way, has more recently been raised to $12 billion, according to the US State Department in an 18 June announcement (available here). The announcement also includes the claim that the US is the world’s leader in COVID-19 funding, but again one has to wonder where this is being spent. The 18 June announcement does identify $1.2 billion of that amount for “emergency health, humanitarian, economic and development assistance” specifically to help governments, international organizations and NGOs in their fight against COVID-19.

So now it looks like China is sitting pretty at the WHO itself, while the US is letting the WHO become the Chinese playground. But not really. It seems that the many overlapping efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic are so intertwined with each other that there is no way that the US can effectively cut out the WHO. As already mentioned, it is not clear just where the US resources are being channeled for the focus on COVID-19, but it would seem that the US withdrawal from the WHO is not likely to free it from working, at least indirectly if not directly with the WHO on COVID-19. Nonetheless, the US action to withdraw its support for the WHO has hampered any global effort on COVID-19 that will eventually have to include both the US and China.

GAVI and the Coronavirus Global Response

In a preceding commentary, I was quite taken by a pledging summit that was held on 4 May to mobilize a Coronavirus Global Response, hosted by the European Union. While the US did not participate in that summit, the target of $8 billion in pledges was actually met without US participation.  The Chinese did make a token gesture of pledging $20 million. Since then, the tally has gone up to €9.8 billion. See the latest tally here). Still without US government participation – and with a Chinese pledge inching up to €45 million.  This Coronavirus Global Response initiative is where all of the other public donors are pulling together in a very informal structure but one that is involving an encouragingly growing number of private foundations and business associations.

The next big pledging summit of interest to this effort at global coordination was actually a “replenishing” summit for GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. The 4 May event had already identified GAVI as a key part of the informal structure for the Coronavirus Global Response. That is to say, GAVI had been designated as the main channel for distributing whatever COVID-19 vaccines are developed , with an emphasis on low and middle income countries. Thus, the already scheduled replenishing summit for GAVI on 4 June served as an additional platform for COVID-19. Not only did GAVI exceed its targeted goal of $7.4 billion in pledges for its existing vaccination programs, but it also raised another $2 billion for COVID-19! (See GAVI’s press releases on the summit outcomes here.)

GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance is itself both a multilateral and a multi-stakeholder initiative. This is not new. It is also, one might note, where both the US and China continue to be members. But it is especially noteworthy that the 4 June Summit attracted a broadening array of both private sector and civil society participants – and a good number of vaccine manufacturers in particular. These were positive developments for GAVI’s overall mission but also for its role in the Coronavirus Global Response.

Highlights from the GAVI summit included the launching of a new Advance Market Commitment for COVID-19 Vaccine (Covax AMC)  with a goal of raising $2 billion. Its first commitment came from Astra-Zeneca, allied with Oxford University, to manufacture 300 million doses of the vaccine under development at Oxford for distribution by GAVI.  And Astra Zeneca was joined by GSK and J&J in pledging a no-profit price for any COVID-19 vaccine “for the pandemic period”.  These were especially good signs for ensuring equitable and global access of any vaccine that ultimately works, with the Oxford project being very much in the forefront (and currently further along than the 10 other promising initiatives as identified by the WHO). Astra Zeneca, it seems, has also reached agreements to deliver hundreds of millions of doses of this Oxford vaccine-in-development to France, Germany, Italy, the UK – and even the US!

There were civil society representatives at the Summit, too. One was featured by GAVI for signing a far-reaching Memorandum of Understanding, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to collaborate on access to vaccines in low and middle income countries.  All of this coming out of GAVI reinforces the momentum for bringing new actors together for global collaboration on COVID-19.

Expanding the Multi-stakeholder Opportunities for COVID-19 Action

An even broader multi-stakeholder platform has been envisioned through yet another pledging summit, this one to be held on 27 June. Here the “co-convenors” are the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Co-Founder and CEO of Global Citizen, Hugh Evans. This summit is being described as the “final” Global Pledging Summit for COVID-19. It is a multi-faceted effort to step up the mobilization of resources to ensure global access to whatever vaccines are eventually discovered. The EU host describes it as an effort to open up opportunities for businesses, foundations and citizens to hook up with “public” donors. This new effort at pooling of funds is an addition to the WHO-based fund that has already been soliciting private sector donations.  With the Global Citizen as a co-convenor, this brings a new multi-stakeholder twist to global collaboration on COVID-19.

Global Citizen is describing its view of this forthcoming summit (available here) as a collective effort for anyone and everyone to get “world leaders” to commit to make sure COVID-19 tools and treatments are “available for all”. The “Global Goal: Unite for Our Future”, as Global Citizen calls it, includes a lengthy menu of artists offering personalized “experiences” in exchange for  specific actions on COVID-19 under the banner “Unite to Win Unforgettable Artist Rewards”.  In announcing the 27 June Summit, the CEO of Global Citizen was joined by two of these artists, Hugh Jackman and Miley Cyrus, to announce the artists’ support for the event.

Readers will recall from my previous commentary on COVID-19 that this interesting NGO, Global Citizen, has a strong “millennial” quality to its leadership.  With its origins in youth-inspired activism for the Post-2015 Development Agenda at the UN, it continues to have a strong commitment to advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The COVID-19 effort is an add-on to its mission in support of the SDGs.  It has established a reputation for aid-inspired concerts, including one in April for COVID-19. It  has also recruited a substantial number of private sector partners, in contrast to many of the global NGOs with their anti-private sector history. 

As one would expect, both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust are partners for this “final” pledging summit, along with Bloomberg Philanthropies.  Thus, with these core supporters hooking up with this unusual NGO, the Coronavirus Global Response is one step further into a multi-stakeholder environment that is seeking to attract individual citizens, businesses and philanthropies along with governments. Let’s hope it opens up more opportunities for the many other kinds of NGOs, too. But for now, I have opted to become a member of this NGO, Global Citizen, even if I am not myself a “millenial”. I do encourage an exploration of the opportunities that this NGO is offering to us as individual citizens (or businesses or foundations or other civil society actors, as the case may be).

Setting Aside the G-20 Link

But I have to confess that I need to shelve my efforts to describe this global collaboration as somehow linked to the G-20.  Yes, I know that many former world leaders, including those who helped transform the G-20 from a financial network to a broader network of major economies some 12 years ago, have been urging the G-20 to be the platform for action on the pandemic.  It is still the case that both the current host Saudi Arabia and the future host Italy of the G-20 are active participants and supporters of the 27 June Summit. Both have also mentioned their G-20 role in their own prior pledging statements –at both the 4 May and the 4 June summits.

Most significantly, however, President Ursula von der Leyen from the European Commission, as co-convenor of this 27 June summit, listed 15 national governments that are supporting this event’s outreach to the private sector and individual citizens.  The list includes the usual European G-20 members  – Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom – and a couple of other G-20 members – Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Africa – but no other G-20 members. No US or China, of course, but also no Russia or India or Brazil or Korea or Indonesia or Argentina.  And then the supporters have been joined by Austria, Belgium, Norway, Spain, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, and New Zealand, none of whom are in the G-20.  So there is no  pattern here that can justify this as a G-20 initiative in the making.


Where will it go instead, I ask myself. I certainly hope that it will continue to evolve into a platform for multilateral and multi-stakeholder collaboration beyond just the immediate crisis. This is a 75th anniversary year for the United Nations, and many advocates of multilateralism are looking at ways use the current crisis to reform the UN.  One such effort is being led by French President Emmanuel Macron through an “Alliance for Multilateral Diplomacy”, based at the UN, or at least, based among UN-accredited diplomats. But it, too, is essentially an intergovernmental platform.

Yes, let’s push for UN reform, but I do believe this is an opportune time to explore alternatives that have more of a multi-stakeholder character, even without the US or China. Well, eventually, they both need to be there, which is why the G-20 is still an option, since one can’t really have a coalition of major economies without them. But I do like the multi-stakeholder effort of the Coronavirus Global Response initiative, and I believe that it can become a vehicle for more such collaboration in the post-COVID-19 world.

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