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Responding to global challenges in a fast changing world: The case for strengthening multilateralism


Mrs. Mary Chinery Hesse, Chancellor of the University of Ghana and Chairperson, it is indeed an honor and a privilege to meet you. You are one of the women who has broken the glass ceiling and you are an inspiration to us.

Your Excellency, Ambassador D. K. Osei, President of the Council on Foreign Relations Ghana,

Honourable Ministers

Honorable Members of Parliament,

Her Excellency, Mrs. Martha Pobee, Ghana’s Permanent Representatives of the United Nations,

Excellencies and Distinguished Members of the Executive Council,

Distinguished guests,

Dear students and young people.

ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you, Ambassador Ametekpor for the kind introduction. Let me also thank the distinguished Mrs. Mary Chinery Hesse for her opening statement. Ambassador D.K. Osei, let me once again thank you sincerely for your welcome remarks. I am grateful to you all for the warm welcome this afternoon.

I want to say a special word of welcome to the young people in the audience, who I understand are associated with the United Nations. Young people are our present and future and are central to any effort to harness our fast-changing world to our advantage.

I have spent the last few days on a fascinating, inspiring – and somewhat exhausting – trip to Chad and Nigeria. It’s great to be in Accra now, and a tremendous honor to deliver the third lecture in the distinguished lecture series of the Council on Foreign Relations Ghana. Thank you for inviting me.

“A patient man will eat ripe fruit” – so the saying goes.

I understand that this Council has been some years in the making but I cannot think of a better time to have a strong independent voice on international affairs and multilateralism coming from this country and this region.

Institutions in the Global North continue to be over-represented in the world of UN think-tanks and I think that we have to acknowledge that.

It is essential that Member States and UN officials can also draw on the wealth of experienceanalysis and cutting-edge research that is coming out of Africa, Latin America, Asia and of the global south.

As President Akufo-Addo noted at your official inauguration in February, in light of the challenges we face – which have the potential to change dramatically the landscape of international relations – this Council can play an important role in shaping national, regional, continental and global conversations.

Ghana, of course, is already a key player in international affairs. Through your contribution over many years to UN peacekeeping, for example. Through the normative changes supported by Ghanaians like Michael Addo, who has done much to advance the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and I’m very privilege to be his personal friend.

And through your outstanding diplomats, many of whom are in this room, to Mohammed Ibn Chambas, who heads the Office for West Africa and the Sahel – and who spoke here last just last month, to Kofi Annan himself, of course –  I think that he is one of Ghana’s greatest gifts to the United Nations, and to the world.

I recall with  fondness, Kofi Annan  describing himself as a “stubborn optimist”.

I, too, consider myself an optimist. But given the many challenges facing the world, we optimists need to be very stubborn indeed at present!

Ladies and gentlemen,

I want to begin, this evening, by looking at the confluence of crises facing the world.

I will outline four “tipping points” – planetary, economic, social and political – and their implications for the health and future of the international system. I will set out four deficits in the system that need to be addressed. And I will conclude with some thoughts on the role of Africa – and Ghana in particular.

Turning first to the challenges we face. Earlier this week, the UN’s Global Assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems was released. One of the press headlines simply read: we are in trouble.

Based on more than 15,000 academic studies by 400 experts in some 50 countries, as well as reports from indigenous peoples, the report warned that nearly one million animal and plant species are at the risk of extinction.

Bee colonies are collapsing. Coral reefs are dying. Rainforests are drying into Savannahs.

The ecosystems on which our lives and livelihoods depend are deteriorating rapidly not to speak of desertification that is expanding in Africa and other parts of the world.  And we are to blame.

Human activity has significantly altered a staggering three-quarters of all land, and two-thirds of our marine environment. One third of the Earth’s surface land is now used for crop and livestock production. The same goes for nearly 75% of our freshwater resources.

Plastic pollution – one of my priority issues for this session of the General Assembly – has increased ten-fold since 1980, contributing to over 400 ocean “dead zones”.

This alone is a crisis of epic proportions. But it is only one of the pressing challenges we face.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have just 11 years to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This will require us to reach “peak carbon” next year. According to the Climate Action Tracker, current pledges under the Paris Agreement put us on course for 2.4 to 3.8-degree rise – and a future of widespread poverty, water scarcity, hunger, displacement and conflict.

We urgently need to increase our ambition. We urgently need to unlock the benefits of climate-smart growth – this of course with  the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimates could be as much as $26 trillion dollars in the next decade.

At the same time, we need to address long-standing challenges. One in 10 of us still lives in extreme poverty – 80% in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

One in three of us does not have safe drinking water. At least half the global population lacks access to proper sanitation, to social protection and to essential health services. People are forced into impossible choices: food or medicine? Education or treatment?

And it is still the case that if you are a woman, an older person, a person with disabilities, or from a ruralminority or indigenous community, you are more likely to be disadvantaged, marginalized and subjected to human rights abuses or violence.

Dear friends,

Other issues, too, are emerging that require urgent attention. Rapidly-changing communications platforms, for instance. They can offer great potential in areas from delivery of services to citizen empowerment – as well as challenges in terms for example of privacy, disinformation and hate speech, to name just a few.

Digitization, automation and A.I. also offer benefits – in terms of productivity, job creation and innovation. But they too come with risks. For instance, as many as two-thirds of jobs in developing countries could be lost to robots in the coming years. We must have policies in place to ensure these developments yield a net gain.

And then there are the sweeping big-picture trends.

Between now and 2030 – the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – half of the global population will be under 30. And 42% of these young people will be African will be you. By 2050, however, people over 60 will overtake youth, with Africa seeing the largest growth in this demographic. We need to start preparing our social system for these changes.

We also need to plan for the continuing shift towards urban centers, which currently by the way account for 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

And – as we grapple with the current displacement crisis of nearly 70 million people across the world – we must plan to support even greater numbers uprooted by climate change and instability. We must also plan to manage – and harness the benefits of – increasing human mobility.

Finally, we must weather transitions in the global political landscape. Power is mutating. It now encompasses factors such as energy security, cyber capability, information and innovation – alongside traditional military and economic levers] .

And power is shifting horizontally and vertically – between states and regions – and to stakeholders such as cities, companies, and, to a lesser extent, civil society. The world is becoming more multipolar, but also more polarized.

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