Multilateralism in an age of crises – Where do countries at the last mile of development fit in?

Habib Ur Rehman Mayar
September 11, 2023

Compounding global crises related to security, economics, the Covid-19 pandemic, and climate change disproportionally affect the poorest and conflict-affected countries. While there is increasing demand for multilateralism to address global crises, two key factors limit the effectiveness of multilateral processes. International politics lacks solidarity and is characterized by increasing polarity among the major global powers that are driven by the cold-hearted pursuit of national interest at the cost of shared humanity prosperity. In addition, multilateral systems and solutions are not multilateral enough to address the challenges facing fragile countries. Based on the experience of the group of Seven Plus (g7+), an inter-governmental association of 20 conflict-affected countries that are united by a collective vision of peace and stability and bounded by a sense of solidarity, it is clear that the only way to address the contemporary crises that threaten us is through inclusive, representative, and democratic multilateral solutions founded on the aspiration of humane solidarity.

Conflict-affected Countries and the Polycrisis

Multilateral institutions like the United Nations have often been the last resort for conflict-affected countries despite the failure of the multilateral system to prevent some of the world’s worst human tragedies. These include the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the current conflict in Ukraine. The current polycrisis of converging global crises and eroding multilateral cooperation and resilience to deal with these crises has already had its worst impact on the world’s poorest and most fragile countries. These countries were already at the last mile of development and contending with extreme poverty, hunger, natural disasters, and conflicts. Today, these same countries are reeling from the aftermath of the pandemic, disrupted food supply chains, economic and energy shocks, military coups, and a punishing debt crisis.

Conflict-affected Countries and the Multilateral System

The multilateral system, especially the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions, was established against the backdrop of the Second World War. Since then, the world has not witnessed a direct confrontation between the big powers. However, division among these powers underlies the very structure of these systems. The Cold War that featured an arms race and proxy wars fought across Latin America, Africa, and Asia claimed millions of lives and further deepened these divisions. My own country Afghanistan was a victim of this contest of hegemony; the legacies of which have lingered on until now. Ideologies such as communism and capitalism were the supposed pretext for the division between the two blocs of the Cold War. The same ideologies were used to dominate the so-called Third World countries by either of the blocks.

Despite a relative peacefulness between global powers since 1991 marking the end of the Cold War, divisions among major powers have become even wider. We are witnessing a new Cold War era but this time it is characterized by multi-polarities and fragmentation among great powers and emerging ones. Unlike the Cold War, this new era of geopolitical confrontation does not offer

people experiencing conflict competing ideologies of hope and prosperity. Instead, it poses a threat to their survival. Countries and people in fragile situations are among the farthest left behind by global development and have already been bearing the brunt of global challenges. The majority of the poorest people with a lack of access to even very basic services such as justice, health, and education come from these countries. The OECD estimates that 86% of the poorest will live in countries affected by fragility by 2030, the end of the SDGs, which should otherwise mark the eradication of extreme poverty. Instead of an end to extreme poverty, this period of geopolitical fragmentation threatens increased conflicts that can spill across borders, a worsening refugee crisis, unchecked climate change, and food and vaccine protectionism in the face of future pandemics and food crises.

Can the Hobbesian state of nature that is at the core of relations between states guide multilateralism to find solutions to the polycrisis that humanity in general and conflict-affected countries, in particular, are facing? The lack of harmonization in climate negotiations, non-proliferation of arms, and major setbacks in reaching the SDGs have indicated that so far, the answer to the above question is NO!

Solidarity should replace realism

The cold-hearted pursuit of national interest by powerful nations has been the biggest obstacle in making multilateralism work for everyone. To make multilateralism more responsive to big problems such as climate change, interstate wars, and arms proliferation, we need to promote a narrative of humane solidarity. This may make little sense to the pundits of realism, but the interdependence of globalization necessitates a shared conviction that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”.

The Role of the g7+ to Promote Multilateral Solutions

We have witnessed the power of solidarity within the g7+ group. The g7+ is an inter-governmental association of 20 conflict-affected countries that are united by a collective vision of peace and stability and bounded by a sense of solidarity. The group has collectively advocated for dialogue to end wars, the pursuit of people-centered Justice to sustain peace and effective international cooperation. g7+ members played a central role in the creation of the Sustainable Development Goal, or SDG 16—a dedicated goal on peace, justice, and effective institutions.

Since its establishment, the g7+ has pioneered the concept of Fragile-to-Fragile Cooperation to promote shared learning, dialogue, and good practices among g7+ countries across three continents. Such initiatives have culminated in addressing crises in member countries. For example, Timor-Leste aided Guinea Bissau on democratic reforms. Timor-Leste assisted the Central African Republic in supporting displaced people. The g7+ facilitated dialogue between warring factions in the Central African Republic. Although very small in size and resources, the g7+ can play a vital role in pursuing solutions to address conflicts and raise resilience in a range of countries by drawing on the collective wisdom and experience of countries that have weathered shocks and stress, often in inspiring ways.

The Multilateral System must become more Inclusive and Representative

While the multilateral system has never been as in demand as it is today, multilateral institutions and processes need to become more democratic and inclusive. Every country should be given equal rights to have a say in shaping multilateral policy frameworks and cooperation in relation to peacebuilding, conflict resolution, climate change, and non-proliferation of arms. In particular, conflict-affected countries that are at the receiving end of peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development interventions, need to be given the right to influence policies thereon. The formation and agreement on the SDGs charted a course to meet these ends. However, the global goals’ realization will require reinvigorated energy and renewed commitment.

According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, an ability to cooperate was among the distinguishing factors that led to the survival of the human race. Throughout the history of human civilizations, people and nations have cooperated in pursuit of wars and peace alike. As global cooperation continues to wane and conflicts rise, humanity can only cope with global problems if countries cooperate with the predication of solidarity rather than narrowly defined national interest.

About the author

Habib Ur Rehman Mayar is Deputy General Secretary of g7+ secretariate based in Dili, Timor-Leste. With 15 years of experience in aid management, peacebuilding, and statebuilding, he has contributed to the global discourse on aid effectiveness, addressing state fragility and pursuing peace and stability. Like every other Afghan, he has witnessed and lived the impact of decades of crises in Afghanistan. He tweets at @Habibmayar and you connect with him on Linkedin.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.