The United Nations has once again made it into the news — as a backdrop.
This happens every September when world leaders gather in New York for the General Assembly’s “general debate.” This year’s theme for that debate: “A watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges,” a typical general debate word salad that lets world leaders talk about whatever they would like.
These talks drone on for days, serving mostly to generate headlines in the speakers’ home countries. The general debate ends in no vote, no decision. The world leaders go home. The UN fades back into the global media shadows until the next September, a distinct nonplayer in world affairs.
Many of those actively advocating for the UN after World War II’s horrors — people of world renown like Eleanor Roosevelt — had a more meaningful role for the United Nations in mind. And in those early UN years, particularly under secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in the 1950s, the UN did figure as a significant worldwide political player.
Hammarskjöld, an economist who had coined the phrase “planned economy” and drafted the legislation that ushered in Sweden’s pioneering “welfare state,” made headlines year-round with his peacekeeping efforts. The UN mattered. But those days have long passed.
Hardly anyone seems to pay close attention to the UN these days. And that sad reality counts as a real shame — because the current UN secretary-general, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, is saying what the world needs to hear. Guterres has been doing more to focus world attention on the catastrophic inequality that endangers humanity than probably any other figure on the world political stage.
“Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther,” Guterres told world leaders gathered in New York for this year’s UN general debate. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”
Guterres, the UN secretary-general since 2017, gave that theme his deepest reflections two years ago when he delivered South Africa’s 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture from New York.
This Mandela address came early in the world’s first Covid summer. The pandemic, Guterres observed, had been working like an X-ray, “revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built” and “exposing fallacies and falsehoods,” everything from “the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all” to “the myth that we are all in the same boat.”
We may all be “floating on the same sea,” Guterres went on, but some of us are floating “in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris.”
“Inequality,” the secretary-general continued, “defines our time.”
We have seen, Guterres would go on to explain, “an unprecedented shift in income distribution,” with 27 percent of global income growth over the past four decades going to the world’s richest 1 percent.
“Tax concessions, tax avoidance, and tax evasion remain widespread,” he noted. “Corporate tax rates have fallen. This has reduced resources to invest in the very services that can reduce inequality: social protection, education, healthcare.”
“We are sometimes told a rising tide of economic growth lifts all boats,” Guterres then added. “But in reality, rising inequality sinks all boats.”
High inequality, he detailed, brings “economic instability, corruption, financial crises, increased crime, and poor physical and mental health.”
In inequality’s wake, meanwhile, more and more people feel marginalized, and the marginalized will always be “vulnerable to arguments that blame their misfortunes on others, particularly those who look or behave differently.” The resulting extremism, racism, and scapegoating create “new inequalities and divisions within and between communities, between countries, between ethnicities, between religions.”
And where does the United Nations fit amid all this? The UN’s original “vision and promise,” Guterres pointed out, holds that “food, healthcare, water and sanitation, education, decent work and social security are not commodities for sale to those who can afford them, but basic human rights to which we are all entitled.”
Realizing this vision and promise, he declared, will take “a Global New Deal: a redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunities.” And that redistribution, here in the 21st century, has become more essential than ever — since the “two seismic shifts” shaping our century, the climate crisis and digital transformation, “could widen inequalities even further.”
A meaningful Global New Deal, Guterres made plain, would require “a new generation of social protection policies with new safety nets, including Universal Health Coverage and the possibility of a Universal Basic Income.” Also required: a new approach to taxation that understands that “everyone – individuals and corporations – must pay their fair share” and recognizes “that the wealthy and well-connected have benefited enormously from the state and from their fellow citizens.”
Global leaders must decide, Guterres concluded, if we will continue on our current course and “succumb to chaos, division, and inequality” or “right the wrongs of the past and move forward together, for the good of all.”
Guterres raised these questions for world leaders two years ago. He and we are still waiting for a response.