Learning from COVID-19 and upgrading sustainable governance

The ISC-IIASA Enhancing Governance For Sustainability Report identifies the lessons learnt from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in relation to upgrading risk governance.

As some governments and their administrations, individuals, and science systems begin to adapt to COVID-19, the struggle still continues in many countries. With that, the world is slowly leveraging the insights this pandemic has offered, standing at the cusp of a new world, which faces multiple stressors and is in need of more resilient governance.

Globally, national governments were put under the microscope. Some, such as Singapore and South Korea, succeeded with evidence-based, swift national leadership coupled with clear crisis communication. This proved useful for containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus and with it brought necessary recovery initiatives. In other countries, such as the United States, tackling the crisis has been characterized by governance challenges, including crisis plans with layers of shared responsibility being ignored in favour of “management by panic” approaches.

The pandemic has highlighted the flaws of neoliberal governance that prioritises economic growth, deregulation and a separation between people and nature ahead of policies centred around human and ecosystem health and wellbeing.

To this effect, the ISC-IIASA Enhancing Governance for Sustainability Report goes beyond just considering the roles and responsibilities of governments, and adopts a broader definition of governance as, “the totality of actors, rules, conventions, processes, and mechanisms concerned with how relevant…information is collected, analyzed and communicated, and how management decisions are taken”.

In a world confronted with future risks such as spiralling climate change, ecosystem collapse and dwindling resources, global governance needs to be reformed.

The report states that the global community needs to engage in multidirectional and more integrated learning, problem identification and decision-making. This should enable the shift towards more sustainable and equitable development in an ever-riskier world.

A disease with no respect for borders requires a collective response, said Volkan Bozkir, President of the United Nations General Assembly, adding that, “COVID-19 is a practice test that exhibits our weaknesses; we must build resilience now for whatever comes tomorrow.”

The pandemic highlighted widespread global fragmentation, which was initially observed through uncoordinated and sometimes competing actions. The report explains that organizations and agencies with similar objectives fought over resources, when instead they should have been bridging their divides and working cooperatively to eliminate competition. In the meantime, as the divide is bridged, special crisis provisions should be established for activation in case urgent action is needed again.

The report also recommends strengthening science–policy interactions to enable evidence-based decision-making, in which science systems collaborate with governments at all governance levels. Global and regional collaboration is especially important given the uneven scientific capabilities across countries and the need to tackle the pandemic everywhere to achieve health outcomes for all.

Working effectively at the interface of science and policy has been a challenge for many countries, which warrants further investigation. However, scientists have tried to step up to the challenges in some unprecedented ways.

For example, online repositories started making COVID-19 studies as pre-prints so that their findings could be used by all scientists quickly. As a result, researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences, and several hundreds of clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.

Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, referred to international scientific collaboration in reference to COVID-19, as the “engine of global science” and said, “It is thus crucial that scientific responses are based on international collaboration that brings together the best minds and available data from different countries for the benefit of all”

Therefore, to reform global governance, evidence-sharing arrangements need to be centred on a global level with reliable evidence, which must be made available swiftly in times of crises. In order for this to happen, the report recommends the creation of specialized advisory bodies that offer consultations on a regular and on-demand basis. The report also suggests involving diverse stakeholder perspectives in these consultations.

Another key point to enhancing sustainable governance is risk reduction management, which should be a fundamental component of decision-making and a part of the investment in sustainable development. The report states that a global socio-ecological resilience and risk dialogue should be launched, engaging policy-makers, civil society, the private sector, and the scientific community in mapping risks and their drivers at different scales and discussing their implications for risk governance, prevention and preparedness. Such an engagement process would increase the understanding and communication of the compound, systemic nature of risks driven by infectious diseases, climate change and other socio-ecological stressors.

“A more holistic approach to risk that better takes into account the many intricate links between nature and people is sorely needed if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”

– Anne-Sophie Stevance, ISC

Unifying fragmented global organizations and governance, forming scientific evidence-based policies with the help of science systems, and enhancing levers pertaining to risk management are only some of the recommendations in the report.  For more information on upgrading risk governance read the ISC-IIASA Enhancing Governance For Sustainability Report.

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You can also watch the discussion on Learning from COVID-19 and upgrading sustainable governance as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.

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