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Jul 01 2020
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Global Development Governance
By Zhang Haibing

The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to a serious recession in the global economy, but also intensified the trends of populism and anti-globalization, bringing unprecedented challenges to the global development governance. The international community needs to take the pandemic as an opportunity to improve the global development governance system and make adjustments in the fields such as goal-setting, governance mechanisms, etc. Specifically, the following issues deserve special attention.

1. People’s health, safety, and survival needs have become prominent issues of global development governance.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, safeguarding people’s health and meeting their survival needs has become a prominent and pressing development issue. Basic human rights such as survival and health are more visible in the goal system of global development governance. This change in understanding will have a lasting systemic impact on global development governance.

From the perspective of domestic governance, the outbreak has exposed the weak governance capacities of both developed and developing countries in the time of crisis. How to mobilize resources to effectively contain the coronavirus, and provide basic health services for vulnerable groups like women, children, the elderly and adolescents, is no longer a problem exclusive to developing or fragile countries, but a universal challenge to all countries in the world. Therefore, public health will remain high on the domestic development agenda for a long time, affecting national policies in politics, economy, foreign affairs, and security.

From the perspective of international cooperation, the difference in understanding has kept the international community from reaching a consensus on the issue of development goals, and the gap is widened by the Western as they have undermined developing countries’ independence of choosing their own development paths and models. The complex index system of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, including 169 Targets under 17 Goals, proves that countries have diverse interpretations of development. The pandemic has highlighted the core issue of development, making people realize that protecting the health and safety of mankind is the most basic and important development goal. In other words, the right to survival is the most fundamental development right and the most crucial human right, which proves the far-reaching significance of the conclusion that “Development is the fundamental principle”. In underdeveloped areas, social distancing is a privilege that people who live in poverty do not enjoy when they are still struggling for the stable access to clean water, food, and basic sanitation and hygiene products during the pandemic. Therefore, the development needs for survival and health will become more significant after this pandemic and are likely to influence the setting of SDGs after 2030.

2. The overall environment for global development governance has deteriorated sharply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the simultaneous outbreak of multiple crises. For the first time after the Second World War, all regions around the globe are facing multiple systemic crises at the same time. The overall environment for global development governance has deteriorated sharply.

First, it is unlikely that the UN SDGs would be achieved by 2030, as the number of global population living in poverty will soar due to the impact of the world economic recession. According to the Global Economic Prospects released by the World Bank in June 2020,  the global economy is facing a severe recession, causing 70 to 100 million people falling into extreme poverty in 2020. Under a downside scenario, global growth would shrink almost 8 percent in 2020, and barely begin to recover, increasing to just over 1 percent in 2021; emerging markets and developing economies would contract by nearly 5 percent in 2020. Moreover, the pandemic will not only threaten to throw large numbers of people back into extreme poverty, but also reverse the progress in health, education, gender and other development areas.

Second, conflicts have intensified around the world, undermining the efforts towards the SDGs. The international community has failed to make use of global coronavirus response to reduce international conflicts. On the contrary, the pandemic has restricted the peacekeeping capacity of the international community, which may give rise to regional conflicts and tensions. UNHCR’s Global Trends report shows that forced displacement has almost doubled since 2010, with a record high of 79.5 million displaced at the end of last year.  If the international community fails to effectively pacify the unrests caused by the pandemic and limited peacekeeping operations, the number of global refugees is likely to continue to rise, making SDGs further out of reach.

Third, Western countries are turning inward, leaving a widened financing gap for global development governance. Since the international financial crisis in 2008, many Western countries have witnessed rising government debts. At the same time, populism has diverted the attention of Western countries from international issues to domestic ones. However, the shrinking funding of global development assistance has become an increasingly prominent problem, and the contribution of developed countries already declined even before the pandemic. According to the United Nations Report on the Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, net ODA flows totalled $149 billion in 2018, down 2.7 per cent in real terms from 2017; bilateral ODA to least developed countries fell by 3 per cent in real terms from 2017, aid to Africa fell by 4 per cent, and humanitarian aid fell by 8 per cent.  The pandemic is likely to prompt Western countries to invest more on their domestic issues, and their willingness and capability to participate in global governance will ebb.

Fourth, the world free trade system is challenged by the rise of economic nationalism. Safeguarding the world free trade system and ensuring the stability of global macroeconomic policies are essential to promoting global development governance. However, the pandemic has given room to protectionist and economic nationalist to exert new pressure on economic globalization. The pandemic has revealed the potential risks in the supply chain, so countries will attempt to restructure the production chain and supply chain by moving production closer to the consumers, and may introduce coercive measures to restore or expand domestic production of strategic industries. The wave of anti-globalization will destroy the global manufacturing pattern based on fine international division of labor, thus changing the current pattern of international division of labor. Developing countries will have less opportunities to participate in the world economy.

3. It is imperative to adjust the mechanism of global development governance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the mechanism of global multilateral development governance. Although multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization have played an important role in the prevention and control of the pandemic, the results are far from satisfactory. In particular, the mismatch between responsibility and power restricts the role of the WHO in stopping the spread of the coronavirus and mitigating the related impacts. The pandemic will promote a new round of reform in the global governance mechanism.

On the one hand, international multilateral cooperation is most needed in the fight against the pandemic, yet it has suffered the strongest wave of anti-globalization and populism since the 21st century. In particular, the United States announced the halting of its funding to the WHO in April 2020 and that it would terminate its relationship with the organization on May 29th. The U.S. denunciation of multilateralism have pushed multilateral development governance mechanisms further towards the brink of disintegration.

On the other hand, it is imperative for the international community to reform the global development governance mechanisms. First, as the primary platform for coordinating global economic affairs, the G20 should play a bigger role in global development governance. The G20 first put development on the global agenda at the 2010 Toronto Summit and the Seoul Summit, and then prioritized development issues in global policy coordination at the 2016 Hangzhou Summit. The later summit host nations, whether Germany, Argentina or Japan, all devoted special attention to development issues. Saudi Arabia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the G20, convened the “Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit” and a virtual meeting of G20 health ministers. These meetings have advanced global efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, it should be noted that in order to exclude China, the United States attempts to weaken the G20 by forming a new dialogue mechanism of G7 with Russia, India, Brazil, etc. The damaging impact on the G20 cannot be ignored. Second, the reform of the global development governance mechanism should focus on solving the mismatch between responsibility and power. Although the WHO is the leader and coordinator in the global response to the pandemic, it is not given sufficient authority or resources to perform its duties. The pandemic also exposed the problems in global governance mechanisms such as weak authority and coordination capabilities. To this end, international organizations should be empowered to enhance their capacities in risk monitoring and emergency response. Promoting global partnerships and enhancing coordination in the United Nations system should be the priority of the new round of institutional reform.

4. The pandemic has highlighted the problem of inequality in global development.

Globally, the development gap caused by inequality is growing, which not only impedes the economic progress, but also aggravates the social divide caused by inequality and poses serious challenges to governance. There are many factors contributing to development inequality, including gender, ethnicity, age, disability, income and so on. The persistence of inequality has amplified the unfairness that vulnerable groups have suffered in terms of access to resources and opportunities. While countries are at different points in their COVID-19 infection rates, worldwide there are currently more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries affected by school closures due to the pandemic. Some students without reliable internet access and/or technology struggle to participate in digital learning; this gap is seen across countries and between income brackets within countries. For example, whilst 95% of students in Switzerland, Norway, and Austria have a computer to use for their schoolwork, only 34% in Indonesia do, according to OECD data. In the US, there is a significant gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds: whilst virtually all 15-year-olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not. While some schools and governments have been providing digital equipment to students in need, such as in New South Wales, Australia, many are still concerned that the pandemic will widen the digital divide.  For the larger number of students in developing countries, their situation in terms of access to digital devices for education is even more worrisome.

It is undeniable that the revolution in information technology and science and technology has opened up a new development gap. A new round of scientific and technological revolution represented by automation, artificial intelligence, Internet of things and big data is profoundly changing the patterns of international industry, innovation, and investment. The industrial revolution brought about by the new technology has further strengthened the weak position of developing countries in the global industrial chain. Thus, the global development gap continues to grow. The widening digital divide between the North and the South will weaken the potential capabilities of developing countries to achieve the industrial upgrade and may further solidify the pattern of international industrial division of labor.


 The World Bank Group, “Pandemic, Recession: The Global Economy in Crisis,” June 2020,

 “1 Per Cent of Humanity Displaced: UNHCR Global Trends Report,” UNHCR, June 18, 2020,

 United Nations Economic and Social Council, “Special Edition: Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals,” May 8, 2019,

 Cathy Li and Farah Lalani, “The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Changed Education Forever. This is How,” World Economic Forum, April 29, 2020,

Source of documents:shanghai institutes for international studies