US President Joe Biden last week hailed the success of a UN General Assembly vote not to recognise Russia's recent appropriation of four regions of Ukraine. He suggested the decision sent a “clear message” to Moscow. 143 member states did, indeed, vote to condemn this “attempted illegal annexation” of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. A sizeable majority, to be sure. But look at those nations that did not vote against Russia. Syria, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Belarus, unsurprisingly. More importantly, the abstentions. China. India. Much of Africa (including South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia). Parts of Latin America (Bolivia and Cuba), southeast Asia (Thailand and Pakistan), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan). While it is true that most nations turned against Russia, in terms of population more than half the world did not. Politicians have divided people into almost exactly equal and opposite groups. Have we ever been more disunited? Meanwhile, experts seriously weigh the relative outcomes of a tactical as against a strategic nuclear war in Ukraine. Europe is facing an economic challenge that will scar countries for a generation. And these immediate threats are taking place in the shadow of intensified, not diminished, fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Political conditions are little better. Authoritarian regimes are tightening their grip—suppressing freedoms, repressing minorities, and violently putting down protests. Democracies feel fragile, brittle, uncertain how to respond.
Yet good work continues. Founded in 1988 by Professor Sir Eldryd Parry, the Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) is a charity dedicated to the vision of a world where everyone, everywhere, has access to quality health care. THET believes that by educating and training health workers in low-income and middle-income countries, in partnership with volunteers across the UK medical community, progress can be made. THET works in ten countries in Africa and Asia. Led by Chief Executive Officer Ben Simms, the charity argues that volunteering for global health activities is an important path to improved wellbeing (when as many as one in five doctors are considering leaving the profession). THET's work is a revelation. Health is not a product dispensed by donors or drug companies. Health is a quality created within communities. THET embeds itself in those communities, forming virtuous collaborations that change the trajectory of people's lives. One example from THET's annual conference last week: Gaunima Manandhar, a nurse and field researcher in Nepal, who described her work in the national kidney centre and the challenges she faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Long may THET continue to thrive.
Between these macro-level fractures and micro-level inspirations sit the Sustainable Development Goals. While the 17 goals remain essential objectives for human survival, sustainable development itself is broken. Partly, one can blame the effects of the permacrisis that has engulfed nation-states. But it is more than that. There is an atrophying of commitment. I remember with some pride the part the UK played during the Millennium Development Goal era (2000–15). The UK was a champion of multilateralism. We reached the 0·7% gross national income target for overseas development assistance. We were an early and consistent supporter of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We convened international conferences that made a real difference, from family planning to nutrition. Our diplomats engaged vigorously in major global health initiatives. And then, around 2016, the UK stepped back. It is pointless to relitigate the causes. Brexit. A shift in the political climate to a more populist, nationalist agenda. It was excruciating to read the UK's Executive Director of the Global Fund, Peter Sands, pleading in The Times for the UK Government to make its pledge to invest in the Fund. The USA, Germany, Japan, Canada, France, and the EU had all done so. Not the UK. Our reputation for being open, pragmatic, and global has been injured. As Sylvie Bermann wrote in Au Revoir Britannia, our country has chosen solitude over solidarity. But we are merely one of many countries that have stepped back from global partnerships to secure sustainable development. The USA is no longer the force it once was. The EU is disappointingly timid. The true lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is the value of what we owe to each other. If sustainable development is to survive, that lesson needs to be understood—and acted upon soon.