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Reimagining Cooperation in a Polarised World

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We live in an interconnected world. Yet countries and institutions struggle to cooperate on pressing issues such as climate change, pandemics, misinformation and, above all, war. Geopolitical rivalries and polarisation fuel this impasse.


Reimagining Cooperation in a Polarised World

We live in an interconnected world. Yet countries and institutions struggle to cooperate on pressing issues such as climate change, pandemics, misinformation and, above all, war. Geopolitical rivalries and polarisation fuel this impasse. The recently published Human Development Report 2023-2024, ‘Breaking the Gridlock: Reimagining Cooperation in a Polarized World’ [1], paints a fascinating picture of the world’s inability to unite around global challenges. The report echoes the assessment of other international organisations, including the World Bank and the IMF. At the same time, it goes into remarkable detail about the global situation and individual countries, including socio-psychological factors. It also makes recommendations for improving cooperation. The report’s diagnosis is sobering, and it raises important questions.

The global Human Development Index (HDI), a measure of a country’s well-being, has recovered from sharp declines in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will likely reach a record high in 2023, with all its components – health, education and income – exceeding pre-pandemic levels. However, there is a downside to this positive outlook: Despite the projected peak, the HDI is unlikely to return to its pre-pandemic trajectory, and losses such as the 15 million lives lost to COVID-19 will be permanent.

In addition, the global figures hide huge disparities. Wealthier countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are likely to recover, while only half of the least developed countries are expected to do the same. After decades of narrowing, the gap between high and low HDI countries has been widening, with no easy solutions in sight. Speaking at the report’s launch in Brussels, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner pointed out that some countries would achieve a “soft landing”. Others, however, faced a “hard landing” or even a “crash”, with debt and financing being major hurdles. For some countries, the impact of the pandemic has been dramatic.

The World Bank’s report ‘The Great Reversal’, published ahead of this year’s IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings, expresses the same concern. It finds that up to half of the world’s 75 most vulnerable countries – home to 1.9 billion people, or a quarter of the world’s population – are experiencing a significant development setback. These countries are facing their weakest economic performance in decades, with stalled poverty reduction, rising debt and sharply rising interest rates. As a result, many are spending more on debt interest than on health or education.

The renewed urgency to finance development over the past year has pushed the reform of international financial institutions and debt relief to the top of the agenda at major global governance meetings such as the G7 and G20. This year’s Spring Meetings of the IMF and World Bank showed positive movement, but we need more and faster progress. The gap between where we are and where we need to be is narrowing, but it remains wide.

The Human Development Report identifies mismanagement as a critical factor hindering progress on issues such as poverty and climate change despite global wealth and technology. It cites the Covid-19 pandemic as an example, highlighting underinvestment in preparedness and mismanagement of the response. However, this explanation fails to convince because it describes the problem but does not get to the root cause of under-preparedness and mismanagement. It is also surprising that the report does not address geopolitical rivalries in today’s multipolar world. Would it have been overly sensitive for a UN report, published in the context of this reality, to put them front and centre?

The report highlights domestic and international polarisation and declining trust as critical obstacles to progress. It argues that external shocks, such as those resulting from poorly managed global interdependence, can exacerbate domestic polarisation. This creates a vicious circle: increased domestic polarisation complicates international cooperation. This is because highly polarised societies with populist and extremist tendencies are considered less reliable partners. Domestic polarisation also undermines trust, promotes a zero-sum mentality and discourages compromise. This effect fuels global polarisation, which then exacerbates problems at the national level.

The report breaks new ground by linking people’s mental well-being to their willingness to cooperate internationally. It emphasises the concept of agency, an individual’s ability to make independent choices, as crucial to positive behaviour. The report argues that a lack of agency fuels social tensions and polarisation and ultimately hinders development. It even acknowledges that the Human Development Index (HDI), while valuable, is an imperfect measure. The report proposes a shift towards an agency-oriented approach to development, implying a revision of the HDI. This agency-oriented approach, the report suggests, requires institutions to prioritise the empowerment of individuals. Empowering individuals could help reduce the tensions and polarisation that hinder international cooperation.

The report suggests that the primary solution to overcoming gridlock is to refocus societies and countries on delivering global public goods. These are things, actions and ideas that benefit everyone around the world, such as tackling climate change, keeping the oceans open and developing vaccines. The report argues that working together to deliver these public goods helps reduce polarisation and mistrust, fostering a virtuous circle of cooperation and trust-building.

While the report’s analysis of social and economic development is sound, its recommendations for international cooperation seem incomplete. To be fair, the call for consideration of socio-psychological factors is noteworthy. Moreover, cooperation on global public goods is a useful tool for easing international tensions. However, the report fails to highlight the link between global public goods and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which officially came into force in 2016. The SDGs are the UN’s global roadmap for tackling poverty, inequality, climate change and other challenges by 2030. By highlighting this link, the authors could have integrated their proposals into Secretary-General Guterres’ ongoing broader UN reform efforts. The relationship between the report’s reform proposals and the UN process remains unclear. This ambiguity risks leading some to interpret the report’s recommendations as a track separate from the high-level UN process.

This September, a summit of UN leaders in New York will seek to adopt a package of reforms to reinvigorate multilateralism, including by reaffirming the necessary ‘turbocharging’ of progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The year 2023 marked the halfway point towards achieving the SDGs by 2030. Unfortunately, progress has stalled. 30% of the SDG targets have seen no progress or setbacks, and 50% are lagging behind.

A major obstacle to achieving the SDGs is the unmet need for their large-scale financing. Closing this gap remains a significant challenge, partly due to the recent global arms build-up. According to recent data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, global military spending reached a staggering $2.443 trillion in 2023, an increase of 6.8 per cent in real terms from 2022. This year-on-year increase is the largest since 2009. The top ten spenders, led by the US, China, and Russia, all increased their military budgets. It is a tragic irony that the billions spent on weapons are not available for sustainable development and, thus, for human security, which is so important for peace.

The EU has a crucial role to play in global cooperation to tackle major challenges. Expectations are high, and the Green Deal is a strong signal of the EU’s willingness to lead. But former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s recent report on the Single Market shows that the EU is at a critical juncture in its engagement with the world. In the new world order, characterised by deep and systemic instability, the EU cannot ignore the need to ensure the security of European citizens. This implies a comprehensive approach to strengthening the EU’s resilience and competitiveness. At the same time, it is crucial to strike the right balance between competition and cooperation, as Achim Steiner suggested. Otherwise, we risk fuelling the very tensions we are trying to overcome. Getting the balance right means strengthening multilateral ties so that we can work with others even when our views differ.


[1] United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2023/2024, Breaking the gridlock. Reimagining cooperation in a polarized world,

(Photo credit:  European Union External Action Service)