Global inequality prompts call for new UN conference on Financing for Development

Jim Hodgson

The massive tragedies provoked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have pushed all other news to the margins. But urgent challenges remain: 

  • climate change – extreme  weather events will only increase (even as some politicians demand more oil and gas production)
  • vaccine apartheid – the global North continues to hog the means to stop the spread, while ignoring risks posed by new variants
  • debt-loads sustained by the most impoverished countries have risen as health and other emergency costs increased 

This week, civil society organizations around the world are calling for renewed conversation about Financing for Development (FfD). For all of its flaws (including the Security Council veto held by each of the 1945-era global powers), the United Nations is still a space where on some topics at least, countries can gather as equals.

The UN Conference on Financing for Development “remains the only place where developing countries are at the table with equal voice and vote on issues of global finance and development.”  

In the face of the power accrued to international financial institutions (IFIs, including the World Bank), developing countries and civil society organizations are demanding a fourth global conference, sometimes referring to “FfD4.”

“The FfD process is unique, as it is the only truly democratic space where global economic governance is addressed, while having the issues of climate change, inequalities and human rights at its core,” say the organizations pressing for a new global conference.

“FfD4 should ensure democratization of global economic governance, recognizing the right of every country to be at the decision-making table, and not only those with concentrated power or resources.”

“Globalizing the Fullness of Life”

Twenty years ago, in Monterrey, Mexico, the first International Conference on Financing for Development happened in Monterrey, Mexico. 

Some of the participants in the 2002 ecumenical pre-event in Monterrey.

Concerned that whatever goals we had for the “development of peoples” (a phrase offered by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Populorum Progressio in 1967) were being sacrificed by corporate-led globalization, I attended an ecumenical pre-event that was organized by the Council of Latin American Churches (CLAI). Some participants stayed on for the UN event.

My own presentation focused on good experiences I had had in Canada and Mexico of church collaboration in ecumenical and multi-sector coalitions, encouraging participants to join with others beyond their Protestant churches to achieve goals of economic justice.Our closing declaration said participants were motivated to speak out because:

“Poverty, exclusion, misery, unemployment, underemployment, labour instability, the bankruptcy of small and medium-sized businesses, and the deterioration of the environment, have reached an unsustainable limit.” 

We then affirmed several proposals and ethical principles:

  • The market must not define the life projects of our countries. 
  • All economic growth must have the objective of improving the conditions of all of all of society, without exclusions.  
  • Globalization must be regulated with clear and just rules. This implies:
    • Strengthening participatory democracy in decision-making.
    • Creating mechanisms for control and arbitration at the national level that promote codes of conduct to regulate investments, capital flows and loans. 
    • Creating an international arbitration agency and mechanisms for the cancellation of foreign debt.
    • Reforming the international financial architecture, transforming its institutions and revising its mandates, methodologies and decision-making processes. 
  • The urgent need to cancel the debt of our peoples, so as to provide sustainable social development. But we firmly sustain that the roots of the debt be investigated, and that the creditors and debtors in the North and in the South who irresponsibly contracted these debts be made to pay them.
  • The need to amplify the access to information and technology by our developing countries. 

Our declaration closed with a call on “the powers of this world” to “place the market and the international financial system at the service of all people.” We added: “We affirm that the Reign of God is justice and that the blessing of the creator will be with those who hear the cry of the people.” 

One of the documents that inspired the World Council of Churches to participate in the Monterrey conference was “Justice, the heart of the matter,” prepared two years earlier by staff of the Canadian Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice (ECEJ) – one of the predecessors of KAIROS.

Vaccine equity: Release the patents!

For those of us concerned about global vaccine equity—“none of us is safe until we’re all safe,” the politicians keep saying—there was good news and bad news over the weekend.

Good news is that Pope Francis lent his powerful voice to those calling for fair access. “In the name of God,” he said Saturday to a world gathering of social movements, “I ask all the great pharmaceutical laboratories to release the patents. Make a gesture of humanity and allow every country, every people, every human being, to have access to the vaccines. There are countries where only three or four per cent of the inhabitants have been vaccinated.”

Bad news is that the World Trade Organization has again failed to agree to suspend intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. MoneyControl, a Mumbai-based financial news site, reported that further action on the patent waiver may not come until December, when trade ministers of all WTO member states will meet.

The WTO’s failure last week to “liberate” the COVID vaccines from patent protection was front page news in Mexico City, but got limited attention in English-language media.

More than 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, have demanded a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccine manufacturers. Such a waiver would suspend certain parts of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) so that vaccines and testing technology for COVID-19 could be easily shared. It was the WTO’s “TRIPS Council” that failed to make any progress during meetings Oct. 13-14.

The WTO works by consensus: all 164 member states must agree to any change. MoneyControl said the lack of progress is due to opposition from the European Union and a handful of other rich countries, including Switzerland, Norway and the United Kingdom. “They have been emboldened by a noncommittal United States, despite the support of almost all WTO member nations. Since all WTO decisions have to be unanimous, there is nothing that can be done even if a single nation is unwilling,” a senior trade negotiator said. U.S. President Joe Biden said May 5 that he supported the waiver.

“AIDS drugs for every nation” was one of the cries heard at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006. Photo: Jim Hodgson  

I have written about this issue before and, indeed, the current fight to overcome the big pharmaceutical companies’ patent “rights” is an echo of the struggles in the first years of the new millennium to win access to antiretrovirals and other HIV and AIDS medications.  

Then as now, Canada has refused to support the TRIPS waiver. In May, 75 MPs from all parties sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in support of the COVID vaccine waiver. 

On Oct. 14, Vancouver MP Don Davies of the New Democratic Party spoke again about the struggle for vaccine equity. “We’ve seen the incredible impact that vaccines have had in the fight against COVID-19 in developed countries, and much of the research for COVID vaccines has been publicly funded,” he said.

“Yet many countries in the developing world have been unable to access vaccines due to global patent regulations. This is unacceptable not just from a humanitarian standpoint, but also a practical one, as we know that without a coordinated global vaccination effort, new COVID-19 variants will continue to develop.” 

Medical Xpress reports that COVID vaccination rates are on average 30 times higher in wealthier countries than in impoverished ones. For medical reasons, some countries are now rolling out third doses of vaccines while billions of people have yet to get access to a first dose.

The WTO director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said the gap in vaccination rates between the haves and the have-nots was “devastating for the lives and livelihoods of Africans” and “morally unacceptable.”

Pope Francis took up the vaccine equity issue in the context of the fourth in a series of world gatherings of social movements. He said he would be a “pest”—“pedigüino,” in Spanish: one who asks too many questions—on vaccines, mining companies, debt cancellation and other issues. His calls: