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Transformation at a Crossroads: Inequality and the UN’s New Agenda for Peace

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The United Nations (UN) has recently set out its New Agenda for Peace, and Secretary-General António Guterres has underscored the urgency for action: member states must respond to the growing depth of unease and grievance amongst nations and people. Income inequality since 1990 has grown for two thirds of the global population, and for ethnic, racial and religious minorities, ‘horizontal’ inequalities tend to be worse, as these groups are more severely affected by multi-dimensional forms of poverty and exclusion (i.e., in political, social, environmental and economic realms). Inequalities are spotlighted in this new agenda as a key threat to global peace; they lie at the heart of growing grievances globally and are a primary source of rising distrust in national institutions and potential multilateral solutions. While a robust critique of our global political economy and the governing institutions driving it is offered in the new agenda, the reforms proposed do not reflect a similarly transformative vision. As such, they run the risk of neglecting Krishnamurti’s warning that “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Inequities: A Complex Landscape

How to address the inequities that divide states and societies is undoubtedly a contentious and complex matter, as can be seen through declines in trust in public institutions (disproportionately more so for underprivileged people), rising protests, breakdowns in social cohesion and social contracts, the growth of autocracy (where there is growing disillusionment in many societies that democracy is not delivering), and growing polarization within and between states. Meanwhile, inequalities are deepening as violent conflict intermixes with other forms of growing crisis (i.e., humanitarian, environmental)—as well as food and energy shortages, inflation, debt distress, and political unrest—ushering in an ‘age of polycrisis.’

Inequalities deepen as crises tend to hit vulnerable groups and countries the hardest—as those already marginalized are less able to access the resources needed to weather the shocks and stressors that come with a crisis. We witnessed this with the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to do so with our ever-present climate crisis. To make matters worse, the rich continue to amass the vast bulk of new wealth, as Oxfam’s ‘The Survival of the Richest’ report details.

Despite the profound divisions apparent in our global governance systems, multilateral action designed to tackle these structural issues in synergistic ways is desperately needed. The hope is that threats to peace amidst other priority concerns will be addressed at the 2024 Summit of the Future, where member states will craft new collective agreements for a “better tomorrow”—benefitting current and future generations.

SDG10: Challenges and Critiques

What, then, does the New Agenda for Peace offer toward this ambitious goal? While policymakers have generally been concerned with how violent conflict harms development, the new agenda radically questions the often-avoided other side of the equation—how our global development approaches, foster, rather than further fuel inequalities. Historical legacies (i.e., colonialism, slavery), the “deeply unjust” global financial architecture (i.e., the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund), and the “anachronistic” peace and security structures (notably, the UN Security Council)—are called into question for their roles in this context. Inequalities are importantly taken as an objective fact, departing from a policy focus more concerned with how perceptions of unevenness drive conflict.

Beyond this bold depiction of the problem, what are the proposed solutions? Herein lie challenges. The agenda prominently calls for better sustainable development goal (SDG) implementation. SDG10, however, is concerned with Reducing inequality within and among nations, and is the subject of wide critique.

Highlighted as one of the worst-performing goals in the 2023 SDG Progress Report, researchers highlight that it:

Acknowledging their interdependence, the fact that only 15 percent of SDG targets are on track today questions the idea that the SDGs are an effective strategy to address inequalities.

Rethinking Peace: Exploring Transformative Solutions in the New Agenda

The agenda’s calls to ensure that international aid is equitable and tangible, that finance, trade, technology, food distribution, and security-induced inequities are dismantled rather than entrenched reflect more transformative directions in the new proposed agenda. They are less focused on safety nets and measures to clean up the messes created by the dominant global political economy model, and rather structurally transforming it.

A separate policy brief on Reforms to the International Financial Architecture reinforces that these institutions are not fit for purpose; a paradigm shift and requisite restructuring is needed. It calls for strengthened inclusion and ensuring fairer rules of the game for developing countries, delivering greater debt relief, lower borrowing costs, and more investment in global public goods. Such measures are widely supported, with strong global majorities believing that high-income countries should give more money to the World Bank and increase their aid.

These would undoubtedly be important steps, but can such measures sufficiently shift the dominant political-economy model and elite governance systems, driving them toward greater equity within and across countries? Even if agreed (a herculean task), the pace of reforms would likely be too slow, and the potential for interlocking, multiplying threats to increase inequalities in the meantime will continue. Worse still, how this all unfolds in and for countries and communities affected by conflict is not adequately considered in these documents.

Wider proposals in the new agenda for preventing violent conflict further fail to capture a needed systemic (transformative) perspective, unlike those advanced in 2001 by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The New Agenda for Peace leaves us with the incongruence that, while there are deep injustices in the global political economy causing inequality and conflict, “Member states have the primary responsibility, as well as an ability unmatched by others, to prevent conflict and build peace.” The logic is unsurprising given the primacy of the international sovereignty principle. Yet many aspects of our rules-based system, especially where the economy and the distribution of power are concerned, mediate against this.

The agenda’s climate proposals similarly can benefit from greater ambition, where a transformative, political-economy lens is needed—particularly in countries affected by conflict. Such a lens places climate inequity at the forefront, acknowledging the vast benefits garnered in the Global North through the existing dominant growth model and the vast disproportionate burdens falling on those with little power, capacity and resources to address them. There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these countries to transition to environmentally and economically sustainable futures in a just and equitable manner so that those who have been perpetually marginalized do not get left behind again. The new agenda and the forthcoming summit agreement should be unequivocal about this.

Charting a New Course

It should be clear that we are standing at a crossroads. Do we keep trying to fix a sick system—one that has created the crises we are facing—or move in more transformative directions? Whose interests would patching up the current order benefit? Undoubtedly, not those perpetually marginalized. The secretary-general wants us to adopt a more cooperative approach, yet capitalism requires competition. Autocracy presents other challenges for global conceptions of peace, which are often embedded in notions of citizen agency, inclusion and democracy. What is needed at this point is greater political imagination to move us beyond these dialectically opposed options.

Developing new normative agreements may well shake the foundations of how ‘we the peoples’ understand and value peace and prosperity. This will demand engagement with what different publics value and how to share responsibility. New agreements and accountability mechanisms will need alignment with policy, programming and practice— where the rubber hits the road on outcome delivery. These will need to engage communities, civil society systems and institutions across the peace and security and economic and development industries in far more integrated ways. Such systems are needed urgently to reverse the serious limitations of civil society operating space—particularly given the pivotal roles that civil societies play in advocating for just and equitable societies.

While the answers may not be clearly apparent, we must critically ensure that proposed solutions for stemming inequalities do not unwittingly mask or distract attention to the contradictions and systemic cracks in our flawed global governance architecture.  As reflected in the UN General Assembly’s recent Scope of the Summit of the Future decision, transformation is not just needed but necessary. It is by leaning into the cracks that transformative futures become visible.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Youssef Mahmoud, Showers Mawowa, Luiz Vieira, and NYU CIC reviewers for their helpful comments. 

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