When our partners at the Nizami Ganjavi International Centre relayed the theme of the conference, “The role of the academic environment in managing the Sustainable Development Goals during the Pandemic”, my first instinct was to doubt that the academic environment can become involved at all during the pandemic, given that its primary responsibility is to formulate solutions for the medium- and long-term, in order to prevent similar crises from manifesting in the future (or, should they arise, to help counteract their worst effects), rather than coming up with short-term answers.
However, when I saw the list of participants, I realised that this online reunion serves an important purpose, given that the invitees to this prestigious event are notable figures which share an academic background, who later went on to become heads of state, and were therefore forced to make use of their experience as professors and scientific researchers to resolve some of the most stringent issues of the day, at a time when society itself was undergoing radical changes which brought about major economic and social crises for many.
To begin with the end, our experiences during our mandates as heads of state were a success primarily because we did not limit ourselves to immediate solutions, but proved capable of conveying to the masses the essential idea that the social price that needed to be paid at the time was essential for accomplishing a higher purpose – which, for those of us who served their country in South-Eastern Europe, after the fall of Communist regimes, was the replacement of dictatorship and planned economies with budding democracies and a functional market economy.
In our post-totalitarian transition, our peoples accepted this sacrifice due to this very message of hope, eventually fulfilled – as today, the countries of Eastern Europe are consolidated democracies, with mature market economies, just as Mauritius has proven a model of democracy and economic efficiency for Africa and Ecuador has for Latin America.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the exemplary civic responsibility shown by billions of people worldwide who followed the advice of medical professionals, even while governmental messages were limited to “Stay indoors!”, “Wash your hands!”, “Wear a face mask!”, “Keep your distance!” – or, in the most fortunate of cases, only barely managing to address critical healthcare and economic issues.
Now, three months on, we can see that it was the very lack of a consistent message to tackle the problems of sustainable development which generated social tensions that can easily evolve into more- or less-controllable revolts, such as the ones buffeting the United States and several Western European countries over the past week.
Coincidently or not, 2020 should have been the debut of the “Decade for Action on the Sustainable Development Goals”, set in the broader framework of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, aiming to improve upon essential yet diverse problems such as poverty, literacy, access to water and hygiene, social inequality or climate change, have not diminished in importance throughout the pandemic. Although newsreels focused primarily on broadcasting information on symptoms, infection rates and death counts, the abovementioned critical issues continued to aggravate, left untended.
Perhaps surprisingly, the pandemic has highlighted grave shortcomings in the fields of healthcare, economics, education, social protection and human rights across the majority of developed countries, which only goes to show that existing institutions lack advance warning systems that allow for failsafe solutions in times of crisis. Developing countries, for whom the developed world served as role models to aspire to, can now legitimately question their chosen future paths. And, just as legitimately, they can ask the members of the academic environment why they chose to keep their long silence, instead of publicly tackling and exposing these deficiencies which, in only three months, were painfully highlighted by the virus itself.
Our answer to the pandemic must not be separated from our endeavours to implement the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We must merely re-evaluate and prioritize those aspects we expect to worsen after the state of pandemic is lifted by the WHO: SDG-1 -poverty; SDG-4 -education; SDG-6 -access to water and hygiene; SDG-10 – combating inequality; SDG-12 -responsible consumption and production practices; and lastly, SDG-16 -securing peace, justice while adequately managing security institutions.
Revitalizing these critical Goals can only be accomplished through solidarity and international cooperation – the very things that have been made much more difficult after states, faced with tragic events during the pandemic, began to self-isolate, and to only seek solutions for their individual salvation. The immediate solutions for the smoothest possible recovery have to include: a better planning of public and private investments in sustainable development in order to create a resilient infrastructure; the strengthening our social protection systems; and an increased investment in uncovering underlying causes and minimizing existing risks.
What can the academic environment offer to better manage these Goals? Vision, Strategy and Specialised Instruments. Ongoing qualitative and quantitative research has helped identify the extant issues and the number of people affected. We now know that the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on a broad swathe of the global population not only from a medical perspective, but also economically, socially, culturally, educationally, psychologically emotionally affecting the future of democracy and of human rights.
In order to provide solutions that facilitate sustainable development, the academic environment must create its own agenda, and refuse to acquiesce to the pressures of the financial or political milieu (which, as so often has been proven in the past, seek to only further their own interests) in order to forestall a return to prior situations, or a worsening of existing ones – as happened after the financial and security crises of the early 21st century. In accepting its given mission as the glue holding social solidarity together, the highest consideration of the academic environment must be the interests of citizens.
Before presenting their own plan to rebuild contemporary society found adrift, academics and researchers must first set their own affairs in order. Ethical and moral issues must become paramount to the academic environment. Scientific research must persevere in its search for truth instead of profit, in any of the latter’s many guises: financial, political or of public perception. Scientists must refrain from using soundbites crafted by communications specialists such as “the new normal”, a vague phrase signifying nothing and everything at once; and they must reject the clichés of political correctness which only rebranded “societal evils” as slightly more attractive, without tackling their underlying causes.
A balanced SWOT analysis of the globalisation project is long overdue, one that distances itself from equally damaging utopian or dystopian approaches, an impact study that highlights the correct proportion between social costs and benefits, as well as the preferred distribution thereof – given that all the crises of the late 20th – early 21st century have only served to exacerbate the divide between wealth and poverty, hollowing out the middle class – the pillar of representative democracy! – so badly it is now becoming apparent in even developed nations.
Sustainable development can only be achieved in a society founded on moral values instead of profit, one capable of minimizing greed, wastefulness and arrogance, while promoting thrift, mindfulness and decent living standards.
In this society, the academic environment must act as the guarantor which safeguards that technology does not affect our natural right to privacy, that artificial intelligence and automatization do not dehumanize the social fabric, that medical progress is strictly controlled along ethical lines, that education is again predicated on imparting knowledge rather than skills and abilities, and that culture is not replaced by entertainment.
The alternative is what we have been witness to over the last few days on our television screens and across social media platforms: peaceful manifestations condemning a revolting abuse of authority by police, hijacked by violent groups aiming to provoke general chaos. For Europeans, this seems like a déjà vu of the street clashes between far left and far right anarchists in 1930s Germany, which ultimately led to Fascist and Communist dictatorships across the Old Continent.
We in Eastern Europe are thankfully inoculated against the flagellum of this type of dictatorship, and are aware that this kind of societal devolution cannot occur again today. This does not mean that we must not be mindful of the dangers that threaten representative democracy, coming either from the ranks of the protestocracy, a violent movement bereft of ideology, leadership or an avowed membership which aims to institute generalized anarchy, or from unchecked authoritarianism which threatens with the armed intervention of military materiel.
Present at this videoconference are former heads of state of Romania, Albania and Montenegro – and we have experienced first-hand the collapse of the last dictators of Eastern Europe in our respective countries, as well as the tragic end of those who made use of repression.
Threatening to open fire on civilians only serves to deepen the existing divisions within a society in dire need not of “domination”, but of reconciliation, in order to rebuild itself after the drama of the global pandemic. The emotional impact of the latter, stemming from the fear of a virus that may strike anyone irrespective of social standing, can serve to reinstate life itself as the ultimate value.
This represents the foundation on which a “culture of peace” may be created, eliminating the cult of violence and replacing it with a real dialogue based on mutual respect between groups of people whose kaleidoscopic life experiences are informed by race, ethnicity, religion, traditions and opinions.
Without peace and human solidarity, no sustainable development project can be successful. Thank you.