14 October 2020

Pandemic Should Serve as ‘a Wake-up Call’ for Bridging Infrastructure, Science, Technology Divide, Chair Tells Second Committee, Economic and Social Council

Significant investment in infrastructure will be needed to ensure that developing countries can fully recover from the COVID‑19 pandemic, speakers told the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) and Economic and Social Council today as they held a joint meeting titled “Developing sustainable infrastructure and utilizing science and technology in response to COVID‑19”.

Opening the programme consisting of two panel discussions, Amrit Bahadur Rai (Nepal), Chair of the Second Committee and co‑Chair of the meeting, said the pandemic has become a multifaceted global crisis.  It has resulted in a significant loss of life and livelihoods, pushing people into extreme poverty and threatening the advances the world has been making on Sustainable Development Goals.  In many developing countries, especially those in special situations, there is a lack of infrastructure, networks and technologies, as well as a lack of related skills.  This presents serious challenges to improving the living conditions of society’s most vulnerable people, and the world should seize the pandemic response as a “wake‑up call” for bridging these divides.

Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council and co‑Chair of the meeting, cited a “triple crisis” of pandemic, impending climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  The key issues require financing, and while developed countries mobilized $30 trillion for pandemic rebuilding, developing States are trying to find even a fraction of the $2.5 trillion the International Monetary Fund estimated as the minimum for recovery.  He estimated that $2 trillion is required annually for infrastructure in developing countries, with the gap standing at $1.5 trillion, while $10 trillion sits in negative‑interest accounts.

The programme then shifted to two panel discussions, both moderated by Elliott Harris, Assistant Secretary‑General for Economic Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Panel I, titled “Developing sustainable infrastructure”, featured speakers Dolf Gielen, Director of the Innovation and Technology Centre at the International Renewable Energy Agency; Christian Déséglise, Head of Sustainable Finance and Investments at HSBC; and John Genda Walala, Director of Local Government Inspection at the Ministry of Local Government of Uganda.

Mr. Gielen said that renewables in 2019 attracted $824 billion in investment, but by 2021‑2023 that must double to almost $2.5 trillion and then $4 trillion per year.  That transition would generate 5.5 million new jobs by 2023.  He noted renewable electricity will necessitate smart grids and batteries, and smart‑charging systems for electric vehicles, as 5 per cent of vehicles worldwide are electric, requiring 100 million charging docks.  “We need significant investment into infrastructure, up front” to allow the transition, he said.

Mr. Déséglise addressed the types of infrastructure that are needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and combat climate change.  He noted the importance of partnership between the public and private sector as no single institution can remove the hindrances to financing, and a generation of bankable products has been inadequate.

Mr. Walala noted that local and subnational governments did not have adequate funds when the pandemic hit.  With 6 to 8 per cent of his country’s population involved in subsistence farming, great work is needed to increase the productivity of Ugandans in rural areas.  Kampala is looking to information and communications technology for innovations, and to empower communities and local government to manage operations “like a business” in the post‑pandemic era.

In recovering from the pandemic, the representative of the European Union stressed the importance of digitalization, infrastructure and renewable energy, which are also indispensable in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Adding that recovery from the pandemic will require investments in these sectors, she said the bloc was the biggest contributor to climate finance.

The representative of Afghanistan listed obstacles to infrastructure building for countries in special situations, such as least developed States.  The private sector should assist with sustainable infrastructure investments, understanding that this means a long‑term commitment.

Also speaking was a representative of the United Kingdom.  A representative of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) also spoke.

Panel II, titled “Role of science and technology in combating and recovering from the COVID‑19 pandemic”, featured speakers Julia Glidden, Corporate Vice‑President of Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft; Xiaolan Fu, Founding Director of the Technology and Management Centre for Development at Oxford University; and Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary‑General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Ms. Glidden, responding to a question by one of the co‑Chairs as to how she saw her company’s future after the pandemic, said that it would not be just Microsoft’s future but the technology industry in general, which should partner with academia.  Noting that technology has become crucial to basic life and services, she said the crisis has provided an opportunity to harness it, enabling courts to keep functioning and students at their desks.  Microsoft is spending $25 million for populations around the world to work in the post‑pandemic economy.

Ms. Fu said work must be done to ensure that pre‑existing digital divides will be narrowed.  Crisis can be turned from risk to possibility, she said, as institutional change and policies play a very import role for countries in creating windows of opportunity.  National Governments and international agencies must all step up efforts to improve digital infrastructure and enhance skills.  She cited research in Africa and Bangladesh that digital technology has potential, but low‑income countries need 4G infrastructure to access health care and educational resources.

Mr. Kituyi addressed the fragile link between science, technology and innovation and economic priorities in many developing countries, where the percentage of public resourcing devoted to research and development is often very weak.  This is the moment, he stated, when the solution is embedded in paying more attention to that weak link.  In addition, the policy tools to fast‑track digital inclusion and address the divide are in short supply in those countries.  However, he noted that in many States, de‑urbanization means people live in areas with even worse digital infrastructure.

The representative of Guyana, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said it is already familiar with the challenges of building sustainable infrastructure, as they were faced with them before the pandemic.  The development of sustainable infrastructure has the potential to eradicate poverty, he noted, and boost education as well as other social and economic conditions.

Also speaking were the representatives of Thailand and Iran, as well as a representative of the European Union.  Representatives of the International Telecommunication Union and the United Nations Environment Programme also made statements.

Closing the day’s meeting, Under‑Secretary‑General for Economic and Social Affairs Liu Zhenmin noted the pandemic had undermined progress on all of the Sustainable Development Goals and placed many millions of people back into poverty.  Eradicating poverty is crucial to progress in sustainable development, and a critical component of pandemic response is harnessing science and technology for development purposes to ensure a more inclusive society and safeguard the environment.

Mr. Akram said the discussion had shown the crucial role international cooperation and collaboration can play in developing sustainable infrastructure.  The digital divide, both between countries and within countries, must be addressed.

Mr. Rai said the current situation is an opportunity to reset the economy as more equitable for everyone.  Each of us is living in unprecedented times and the international community can build back better to achieve the Goals and avoid the danger of expanding the digital divide between North and South.  There is not a lack of funds, but of incentives and mechanisms to channel them, and more political will is also needed.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 15 October, to continue its work.

For information media. Not an official record.