By Elena Marmo
The COVID-19 crisis continues to have profound consequences across all sectors of society. Following the initial worldwide shutdown and resulting economic crisis, governments were forced to respond quickly to the virus, while also addressing the profound socioeconomic impacts—widespread job loss, inadequate social protection systems, and industries on the brink of collapse.
Now, with the Omicron variant on the rise globally, urgent action is needed to bring businesses and industries on board, holding them accountable as employers, taxpayers, and economic actors. The joint proposal from India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization is a necessary step towards COVID-19 recovery. The proposal, which will waive provisions of the TRIPS Agreement, namely patents and intellectual property rights related to treatment for and containing the spread of COVID-19, is critical to ensuring vaccine equity.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated, it’s “…not just that the world is at risk of vaccine apartheid; the world is in vaccine apartheid…the basic problem is a lack of sharing, so the solution is more sharing”. COVAX, the multistakeholder initiative aimed to promote vaccine sharing, has proved insufficient to achieve the vaccine equity needed. Due to its voluntary nature, COVAX has established the role of the private sector in COVID-19 recovery as voluntary, calling on companies to align with vague principles and make “donations,” while continuing to promote a market-based approach rather than the systems change needed to reduce inequities.
Drawing much less attention, but equally concerning is another voluntary multistakeholder initiative employing a market-based approach – under UN auspices. This is the COVID-19 Private Sector Global Facility, announced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the 2020 SDG Business Forum. The aim of the facility is “to foster and enhance public–private partnerships and solutions at both the global and national levels.” The initiative is co-created by UNDP, the United Nations Global Compact (UN Global Compact) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) with private sector partners including Deutsche Post DHL Group, Microsoft Corp, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
The initiative is “tailored to countries’ specific needs and supports small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to advance green and digital technologies. Its work directly supports the progress of SDG 8, SDG 13, SDG 17 and the COVID-19 response.” It presents Five Solution Areas to Increase MSME Resilience which include: “digital capabilities, building e-commerce opportunities, integrating SMEs into procurement/supply chains, boosting access to capital, collective action / coordination to benefit SMEs”.
The UNDP webpage dedicated to private sector engagement hosts a quote from Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator: “While the private sector can bring both agility in delivery and new approaches to financing the SDGs, the UN has an important role to play in creating an enabling environment for business to contribute.” The COVID-19 Private Sector Facility does just that. Steiner, in announcing the facility noted:
"Solidarity to ‘Recover Better Together’ can boost our collective efforts not only to cope with the crisis but overcome it. UNDP's footprint across some 170 countries and territories, combined with the UN Global Compact's network of more than 10,000 companies and 68 Local Networks around the world, and the International Chamber of Commerce's network of over 45 million companies, multiplies our collective capacity and potential".
At the launch of this initiative, Sanda Ojiambo, CEO & Executive Director of the UN Global Compact stated:
“It is a moment of human tragedy and intense economic and social upheaval. But it is also a moment of possibility. Through partnerships like the COVID-19 Private Sector Global Facility we will support companies to Recover Better Together from the pandemic and finally confront global inequality by taking action, as well as mitigate the worst impacts of a climate emergency that threatens all of humanity. Together we can construct a new paradigm of resilience.”
To date, very little information on the facility’s activities has become available. While it has been disclosed that Colombia, Ghana, The Philippines, and Turkey will host pilot programs, the facility’s impact has not yet been communicated aside from the creation of a digital training platform, called Digital Path. The platform, launched during UN General Assembly 2021, will feature “cutting-edge content provided by all partners of the Global Facility, to support MSMEs in their effort to go green and digitally transform; business development and strategy guidance; impact measurement and management; and how to go towards sustainable business practices and trade”.
The facility’s efforts are emblematic of the trend towards voluntary multistakeholder initiatives, rather than coordinated international mandates and regulation, and initiatives such as that of India and South Africa. The Global Facility and COVAX are two examples of the ways in which the private sector works with the United Nations system to promote market-based solutions under the auspices of supporting the SDGs. The Global Facility itself claims to support the SDGs, including, “Goals 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 13 (Climate Action) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals)”. However, this does not account for potential adverse effects of privatization and the market-driven nature of the initiative overall.
While the Global Facility is opening doors for the private sector in their programme countries, it has yet to take concrete action to achieve SDG 3 and its commitment to: "Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all".