The year 2020 has shown that the forward march of human progress is not an unstoppable force that can be taken for granted. In the space of a few months, decades of development have been knocked off course by a virus. Getting things back on track is not impossible. But it is not inevitable either. It will take conscious action and collective effort. It will need everyone to put their shoulder to the wheel and push hard in the same direction.
As we approach the end of this difficult year, we face a choice. We can let 2021 be the year of the grand reversal – the unravelling of 40 years of progress – or we can work together to make sure we all find a way out of this pandemic.
The virus caught the world off guard, and at the start of this year there was lots we didn’t know. But at this stage, no one can claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. We know what the problems are. We know what can – and should – be done about them.
It has been clear for some time that it is not the virus itself doing most harm in vulnerable countries. It is the secondary impacts of the subsequent lockdowns and global recession – rising food prices, falling incomes, drops in remittances, interrupted vaccination programmes, school closures. They all hit the poorest people in the poorest countries hardest.
For the first time since the 1990s, extreme poverty will increase. Life expectancy will fall. The annual death toll from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria is set to double. We fear a near doubling in the number of people facing starvation. Many girls out of school will never go back.
The pandemic has been devastating but for many of the countries whose needs we are responding to in this plan it was yet another layer of hardship on top of protracted conflicts, the effects of climate change, and the worst locust plague for a generation.
Altogether it’s a toxic mix that has driven humanitarian need to levels unimaginable at the start of the year. As we look ahead we face the prospect of a return to a world in which famine – something we thought we had consigned to history – is commonplace once more. Where the rights and prospects of women and girls are set back. Where parents cannot confidently expect their babies to reach their fifth birthday.
All this can be avoided. Working together to find and fund solutions is the only way out. Wealthy nations have the means and motivation to help. It would be cruel and unwise of them to look away while battling a second wave with the promise of a vaccine on the horizon. Local problems become global problems if you let them. There is a strong moral and self-interest argument to act.
In this challenging year, the staff of humanitarian agencies have prevented the worst outcomes, displaying impressive courage, commitment and compassion. UN agencies, local and international NGOs, local partners on the ground and individuals from the affected communities themselves have worked tirelessly, hand in hand. At no point did they give up or give in.
But the outlook is bleak. Despite the increased generosity of donors, the gap between needs and the finance available keeps growing. We still don’t have a response that matches the scale of the crisis. We need the plans summarized in this overview to be fully funded - $35 billion is required to meet the needs of 160 million people. The faster that happens, the better.
This is a crucial juncture. We won’t get a second chance to make the right choice.
I have never been more in awe of the determination of people who live unimaginably hard lives in humanitarian tragedies, and their refusal to give up hope. Human progress is hard won and fragile. History will judge us harshly if we preside over the grand reversal.