COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

Reinventing governance for a fragile and complex new world

The future of international cooperation will demand deep and far-reaching institutional reform. It would also necessitate a rethink of the current configuration of the global governance architecture and a rekindling of its tools.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Photo: KB Mpofu/ILO

Four months into the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we are trying to cope with the unspeakable loss of lives and the devastating impact on livelihoods. With so much uncertainty, “going back to normal” – if at all possible – is probably all that we can wish for.

For the future of governance, however, “going back to normal” is not only infeasible – it is undesirable.

For @Swelamiat of @CairoPeaceKeep, when it comes to the future of governance, “going back to normal” is not only infeasible – it is undesirable. #C19ConflictMonitor

While powering human progress, the increasing interdependence of societies and the tightly knit global system have also given rise to various forms of vulnerability. The systemic risks they pose are of a qualitatively different nature to what the world has faced before. They are complex, interconnected, and contagious and exert pressures that build up over an extended period.

What has unfortunately not been changing – at least not at the same speed and depth – is our response. Many individual nations failed to find novel solutions to the structural vulnerabilities ailing societies or innovative means to break through political gridlocks and zero-sum politics. As an international community, we failed to act on the recognition that our institutions have become outdated, and that our tools of managing crises have become overstretched and unsustainably costly.

With broken politics and inadequate institutions, muddling through has become our default reflex. We managed crises rather than prevented them. We won wars, but seldom peace. We simplified the complexity of the world rather than embraced it. We adapted problems to our tools and capacities, rather than the other way around.

For the near future, societies, governments, and international institutions will need to focus on containment, mitigation, and recovery. To succeed, however, these efforts must be part of a longer-term strategy for rebuilding. The goal cannot be to restore the status quo ante, but rather to lay the foundations of a new equilibrium.

The task at hand of reinventing governance for a fragile and complex new world could not be more daunting. For many countries, this would require a renewal of the social contract, including redefining and reprioritizing the central questions of politics. In addition to enhancing preparedness to shocks, it would entail rethinking approaches to contending with the root causes of problems and the structural vulnerabilities ailing our societies. It would also necessitate major departures from mainstream policies on a wide range of issues, from healthcare to inequality.

For the future of international cooperation, it would demand deep and far-reaching institutional reform. It would also necessitate a rethink of the current configuration of the global governance architecture and a rekindling of its tools.

The future of international cooperation will demand deep and far-reaching institutional reform. It would also necessitate a rethink of the current configuration of the global governance architecture and a rekindling of its tools. @Swelamiat @CairoPeaceKeep #C19ConflictMonitor

The last few years have seen a subtle, yet growing, global convergence over the need to shift to a resilience paradigm and agenda. Resilience is defined as the ability of a community or country to withstand, cope with, adapt to, and recover from stresses and shocks without undermining long-term peace and development.

As a foundation for action, it has already informed multiple global frameworks, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 2016 Sustaining Peace Resolutions, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Together, these frameworks represent the closest that we have right now to a blueprint for shaping the post-pandemic world.

To accelerate the paradigm shift to resilience, urgent action is needed on both the policy and institutional levels. On the policy level, the current crisis makes clear that embracing a resilience paradigm can’t be based on stand-alone risk assessments, which often fail to translate into concrete action, but should rather inform the development and implementation of policies. While societies will never be prepared for all risks, risk-informed policies and regulation would enable decision makers to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to crises, and to adapt to change while retaining states’ structure and function.

Pivoting to a resilience paradigm would be incomplete without embracing complexity as the defining feature of fragility and systemic risks. Embracing complexity in our analytical, planning, and programming tools would significantly enhance our ability to understand not only the interdependencies between various parts of the system, but also the impact of our actions on the totality of the system, not just isolated parts of it.

The last few years have seen a subtle, yet growing, global convergence over the need to shift to a #resilience paradigm and agenda. Pivoting to a resilience paradigm would be incomplete without embracing #complexity as the defining feature of fragility and systemic risks. @Swelamiat @CairoPeaceKeep #C19ConflictMonitor

Moreover, pivoting to a resilience paradigm would be impossible if not underpinned by deep institutional reform and a reconfiguration of the global governance architecture. The current crisis has amplified the sharp contrast between the complexity of today’s systemic risks and the organizational logic of the postwar governance architecture governing them. While the former is turbocharged by hyper-connectivity and nonlinear dynamics, the latter continues to emphasize bureaucratic chains of command and specialization. As a result, those siloed hierarchical designs, while possibly valuable in managing complicated systems, are utterly unfit for the purpose of governing complexity and the qualitatively different set of governance challenges it brings to the fore.

The COVID-19 crisis has amplified the sharp contrast between the complexity of today’s systemic risks and the organizational logic of the postwar governance architecture governing them. @Swelamiat @CairoPeaceKeep #C19ConflictMonitor

While there is certainly room for enhancing the implementation of existing global agreements and frameworks and for creating new institutions to tackle novel issues, the pressing question that leaders must contend with in the medium and long term is whether the current configuration of governance architectures can be repurposed to address today’s systemic risks. The ongoing reform efforts at international and regional institutions, including the UN and the African Union, should therefore be regarded as opportunities for strategic reflection and organizational renewal rather than mere redrawings of departmental fault lines.

The outcome of this crisis is far from preordained. A blueprint for managing our fragile and complex world has been taking shape for years, anchored in a resilience paradigm that acknowledges the complexity of today’s world and the qualitatively different nature of its systemic risks. Accelerating this paradigm shift and advancing the institutional reforms it requires is the primary task of the post-pandemic leadership.

Ashraf Swelam is Director General of the Cairo International Center for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding (CCCPA) and the founder of the Aswan Forum for Sustainable Peace and Development. He is a former President of the International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centers and the African Peace Support Trainers Association. He is also a former Co-Chairman of the Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Training Group. His articles appeared in the Financial Times, Yale Journal for International Affairs, Global Policy Journal, Die Zeit, and Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others.

The original version of this paper was published in the Cairo Review on May 15, 2020.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

TRANSLATE THIS PAGE