Our international rules-based order through which the world’s nations pursue global peace and development is crashing into the limits of its founding vision. What our predecessors built some eight decades ago, after the Second World War — from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to the United Nations — is in desperate need of repair. But it remains essential, and salvageable.
For billions of people, the stakes could not be higher. This is painfully true for the people of Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin continues his malevolent invasion of a sovereign nation and subversion of international law. It’s also true across the Global South, where I believe our global development finance system has proved outdated, outmoded and outmatched.
We must reform the architecture of our global order — the blueprint for our system of international relations and development finance.
Group of 7 countries, major global-development organizations and big global foundations remain too uncomfortable, too unwilling, to expand their range of funding and planning partners, especially stakeholders from the Global South. Many of us assume that our so-called expertise is more valuable or relevant than the experience of the communities affected by today’s crises.
Of course, these are precisely the individuals and organizations to whom we should be listening, because they are most proximate to the problems that we can only solve together.
According to a recent study from the United Nations Development Program, during 2020 and 2021, nine of every 10 countries have actually slid backward on the Human Development Index, a first in the three-decade history of this trusted report on health, education and standards of living. These findings set in sharp relief the staggering costs and consequences of our cascading global crises, all of which are aggravated by inequality.
During the pandemic, the global order failed to sufficiently finance vaccine distribution and access, costing countless lives and inflicting incalculable damage on the economies of poor nations. As the world transitions to recovery, the inequities are only widening, both between and within countries.
The picture is hardly better for what should be a shared effort to mitigate and adapt to the global climate emergency and to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals more broadly. In 2009, for example, the world’s wealthy nations pledged that, by 2020, they would contribute $100 billion every year to help poor nations prepare for the consequences of climate change. Our system has now failed to meet even that modest goal three years in a row, and counting.
This system was founded to serve a simple, powerful ideal: peace through economic engagement. Never again would the United States and Europe allow widespread economic depression and dislocation to recreate the conditions that led to isolationism, nationalism, fascism, and global conflagration.
This vision found its consummate expression at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, where delegates created the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — and then in the charter of the United Nations a year later. With support from a range of institutions, including the Ford Foundation, it evolved and expanded to include a plethora of development agencies, a complex mix of government, multilateral, and civil society organizations.
By and large, this system of international cooperation helped achieve its original objective: preventing the horror of a third world war. It sustained peace and prosperity, at least for the West, and ushered in unprecedented (if not uncomplicated) social and economic progress around the world.
At the same time, and from the start, this order was rife with flaws. For one, it did little to impede the proxy wars of world powers, particularly the United States and Soviet Union, across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
For another, it reinforced and even replicated the inequalities it ought to have dismantled, dividing the world into donors and recipients, creditors and debtors, givers and takers, winners and losers. It became a new face of imperialism and colonialism.
Today, the challenges that face this order compound on one another.
We’re engaged in a generational contest between authoritarian ideology and democratic values in countries the world over, including our own, but we’re responding with the cutting-edge thinking of the 1940s.
The consequences of climate change, the next pandemic or next recession will not be relegated to one country or another, but experienced first and worst by the poor and vulnerable in every country, jeopardizing everyone’s security in turn.
Global leaders should commit to three principles for reform, to repair historic wrongs and to seize new opportunities for progress.
First, we must recognize that growth is good, but not good enough. We need metrics beyond G.D.P. to measure and manage toward what matters most: the human rights and human dignity of people in every country.
Second, we must think bigger and bolder, but also for the longer term. We know that investment in equitable development today is far more cost effective than dealing with the consequences of our failure to invest during the decades ahead.
Most importantly, we must ensure that the people affected by 21st-century crises — and the development community’s responses to them — have a voice in shaping policies and programs that serve them.
The global community can start immediately by releasing more resources, currently tied up in development organizations, and by listening to and learning from inspiring leaders across the Global South.
Ultimately, though, we can and must reorganize our efforts around the needs of people and communities, not just nation states, so governments, civil society and private sector entities all work in common purpose toward a global common good.
Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.
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