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COVID-19: Why we should care about the impact on emerging economies

Making sense of the impact on society
Andy Sumner and Myles Wickstead

Professor of International Development; Visiting Professor in International Relations, Department of International Development

22 April 2020

In the face of any crisis, it is natural to think in the first instance of the implications close to home: family, friends, the region, the nation. However, the impact of the global pandemic on people’s lives, especially in countries with weak healthcare systems and limited social safety networks, could be devastating. COVID-19 demonstrates just how interconnected our world is and why it will be in the UK’s interest to support developing countries through the economic challenges ahead.

New estimates produced by King’s College London and the Australian National University and published by the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research show that, regardless of the scenario, global poverty could increase for the first time since 1990. Depending on the poverty line, such an increase could represent a reversal of approximately 10 years in the world’s progress in reducing poverty.

However, in some regions the adverse impacts could result in poverty levels similar to those recorded 30 years ago. This means the number of people in poverty worldwide could rise by half a billion people, no matter which World Bank poverty line is used (living on less than US$1.90, US$3.20, or US$5.50 per day).

A 5% contraction of mean consumption could raise global poverty levels by 80 to 140 million people; a 10% contraction by 180 to 280 million; and a 20% contraction by a staggering 420 to 580 million.

Global poverty headcount ratio, 1990–2018 and projections. Source: Sumner et al., (2020)


The short-term: why we need to offer our support

Part of the UK’s response to supporting developing countries through COVID-19 must be to help strengthen their healthcare systems – not to do so would simply perpetuate a lack of preparedness to address future pandemics and risk seeing them spread out of control.

Another part of the response must be to support the provision of social safety nets to encourage many of the poorer sections of society in developing countries to stay at home. This includes supporting those people with no means of obtaining an income during a lockdown. While it might feel restrictive to us, staying at home to protect ourselves and vulnerable people around us is a privilege many people in developing countries simply can’t afford. So, they need help to take those measures to prevent the further, uncontrolled spread of the disease – and help protect us all.

It is also crucial to provide support to those already facing serious humanitarian situations, notably refugees and internally displaced people. Our common humanity requires it, but it is also in our enlightened self-interest to do so. The virus will certainly spread uncontrollably in tightly-packed camps, but equally won’t stop spreading at their boundaries.   

The long-term: our economic prosperity depends on other countries

In the longer-term, it is clear that our own economic prosperity in the UK relies on the prosperity of other countries. We rely on the import and export of goods and raw materials for our economic growth, as well as to create and sustain local jobs. Consequently, we need to ensure the global system continues to function.

More broadly, though, this crisis gives us an opportunity to think more deeply about the global economy – of a world which will better prepare us for addressing other current and future crises. Not a world of them and us, but a world of global citizens facing a common challenge that threatens every one of us and which we need to face together.

The pandemic has shown just how interconnected the world is. We must address the pandemic together and in a coherent way as a global community – because diseases are no respecters of national borders and can only be addressed through international cooperation.– Andy Sumner and Myles Wickstead

Such international cooperation may also provide us with unexpected benefits. For example, many emerging economies in East Asia, such as South Korea, may have approaches to the pandemic from which the UK can learn.

Addressing global challenges together

Pandemics are not the only issue to be addressed on a global basis. There is also conflict and terrorism, which, if left unchecked, pose risks to us all – both through the pressures of enforced migration and the potential for an exponential increase in global terrorism networks.

We need to recognise that poverty, and the lack of opportunities that come with it, along with a deficit in the structures of democratic governance and institutions to safeguard human rights, can be drivers of conflict and terrorism. For this reason, we should, where possible, continue to help address those root causes.

Above all, perhaps the current pandemic and the awareness it creates will concentrate minds on addressing the key existential threat we now face as a planet – the impact of climate change and environmental degradation. None of us can address these threats alone. We need to work together, and refresh and reinvigorate our international institutions.

We do have a framework within which to address these issues as a global community in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 17 goals and 169 targets, grouped around People, Prosperity, Planet and Peace. The fifth 'P' is Partnerships. The SDGs recognise that we all have a crucial role to play in achieving them by 2030. They are, by the way, universal goals – they apply as much to the UK as to India and Mexico, to France as to Indonesia and Liberia.

The UK needs to help those countries that are less able to meet these global challenges – be it COVID-19, terrorism or global warming – both by supporting countries directly but also by creating new forms of collaboration and cooperation. Partnership is as much in our interest as it is in theirs.– Andy Sumner and Myles Wickstead

The UK is well-placed to pursue and indeed to champion such cooperation. It has a world-leading Department for International Development to work with other countries and multilateral organisations, and a world-leading diplomatic service to help build the alliances required to address the issues coherently.

It is crucial that we do not turn inwards in these challenging times and look only at our narrow national self-interest. This will require a sixth 'P' – political leadership – and a recognition that working together is the only way to successfully address the global challenges that threaten us and the world in which we live.    

In this story

Andy  Sumner

Andy Sumner

Professor of International Development FAcSS FRSA

Myles  Wickstead

Myles Wickstead

Visiting Professor

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