On this week’s episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick was joined by David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee for a sweeping conversation about the rule of law, global justice, and our age of impunity, before, during, and after the COVID-19 crisis. A portion of their interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, has been transcribed below.
I’ve read a lot of your critiques of Brexit and of Trump and Trumpism, and I wonder if you’ve given up on government or if you think that constitutional government has lost its way.
I haven’t given up on government. It’s been more accurate to say politics gave up on me before I gave up on politics. And I don’t believe you can have big social change without government. But the formula I give people is: If you want to have big social, economic, environmental, other change, you need three things. You need government leadership, you need business or NGO innovation, and you need mass mobilization. But you don’t necessarily need them in that order. And at a time when governments are in retreat from big problems, then my narrative is that you need business and NGOs and civil society to mobilize to lead.
So you’re not saying that NGOs and big business are rushing in to fill the voids that government left?
Well, we’re filling a void in leadership, but we can’t solve the problem without government. We’re in an age of impunity, where there’s a retreat from core commitments that were instantiated in some of the international legal regime that grew up in the post–Second World War period. The age of impunity abroad is fueled by democratic recession at home and a loss of soft power in democratic countries, which you’re seeing in the COVID crisis. The troubles that America’s having dealing with this crisis at home are being used around the world to say, “You see? Democracy doesn’t work.”
Can you talk a little bit about what COVID has meant for the work on the ground that you do?
I was on a Zoom yesterday morning with our team in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are five ventilators in the whole of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there are 100 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it’s the size of Western Europe, literally, in geographical space. So there’s a double emergency. There’s a health emergency because some of the underlying health conditions are comorbid in a dangerous way with COVID, and there’s an economic and social emergency because livelihoods are cratering, violence against women is rising. Those two emergencies are kind of powered by the third emergency, which is a total absence of government international policy. The International Rescue Committee has not received a penny from the U.S. government in this crisis.
So our teams on the front line are trying to do prevention, hand-washing, fever testing, isolation of people who’ve got fever or got COVID. And they’re doing it with one hand tied behind their back in conditions where, if you get it and you need hospital treatment, your prospects are utterly grim. We’ve been spared so far because the places we work are not hubs of the global economy, they’re isolated, but it’s coming.
One of the things that I’ve always found inspiring about the way you think is that you’re very deft at saying we know how to solve things. We know what to do for refugees. These are not intractable problems, but there’s no public will to do what needs doing. And I wonder if you have a similar idea what you would do now if you had infinite dollars and infinite commitment from world governments?
I don’t want to seem like I’m a know-it-all, because I also will tell you about things I don’t know. But as it happens, when it comes to infection, prevention, and control, we know what we’re doing because we’ve done it on Ebola. We’re still in 84 health centers in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo fighting off Ebola.
If you had infinite dollars, you’d really have a five-step plan. One, you go gangbusters on prevention, including on combating fake news so that you’re getting trusted information out. Including the fever testing, the isolation centers. We’re building them in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp in the world in Bangladesh. Secondly, you augment your primary health care structures. You don’t try to send 10,000 ventilators to Congo—that’s not going to do any good. But you do make sure that all the staff have PPE, that you’ve got oxygen, that you’ve got the other therapies that can help save lives. Thirdly, you mitigate the short-term collateral damage of the virus on livelihoods and on violence against women by doing cash payments to people in need, because we know that if you had a universal basic income for refugees and displaced people, you’d do a hell of a lot of good. But you also put in place some of the women’s protections, the safe spaces, etc., that we know make a difference.
The fourth thing you do is you would go on a massive adaptation program of the wider services that we provide so that kids don’t lose education and you don’t lose the gains that have been made in education. And the fifth thing you do is you vow absolutely strongly that you’ll make sure the last 10 miles for the vaccine are covered sooner rather than later. Now, if you did those things, you’d need a reasonable amount of dollars, but a fraction of the trillions of dollars that are being pumped into Western economies.
And so I think that there is a recipe and now there’s a bigger picture, though. The final part of it is: That’s all short-term reaction. You also then have to say, “Hang on, there’s a bigger global lesson here.” And the global lesson is blindingly obvious. The holes in the safety net domestically and the holes in the safety net internationally are not just a threat to the people who are stuck in those holes. They are a threat to the functioning of the global economy and society. In the same way that the American workers who have no paid medical leave and therefore don’t dare not go to work even though they’re feeling a bit iffy and thereby threaten to spread the disease, they’re matched by people internationally, who are going about their work, who have no access to the kind of health facilities that we have here and end up spreading a virus that does spread internationally as well as locally.
And so, for reasons of head as well as heart, you’ve got to vow that the next 10 years are about filling the holes in the global safety net. And that’s a big project that takes multilateral agencies. It takes national governments, it takes cease-fires that António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, has been calling for. That would mean that we’d got a flying chance of hitting those sustainable development goals for 2030, rather than being miles off track, which is where we are at the moment.
I remember early in the pandemic there was this very aspirational line of journalistic pieces—I might have penned one or two myself—that said this thing that you have just identified will be the lesson of COVID. That it has peeled away the vulnerabilities in the American capitalist project. It has peeled away international vulnerabilities. We’ve all figured out that the whole world is interconnected. We rise and fall together. I’m not sure we’re learning that, and I wonder if you have any hope that this global retreat can be reversed?
Well, there’s a contest, isn’t there? And the contest is: Do you blame the global system for the pandemic, or do you blame the mismanagement of the global system for the pandemic? There is a resort to a blame game. I wrote about what I call the four contests of the post-COVID world. They’re about the global system, whether it’s to blame or, in fact, too weak, which is my argument. The World Health Organization, in my view, is too weak, not too strong. Secondarily, the post-COVID world is a contest about democracy, because you’re going to have a lot of people saying, “Oh, these autocratic regimes seem pretty good at handling the crisis.” It’s also a contest about privacy. Do you trust Google with your information? Do you trust government with your information? And then the fourth of these intersecting contests is about global inequality and national inequality. Because we’ve lived at a period where inequalities within countries have grown, but inequalities between peoples have diminished.
I think it’s a very pregnant moment.
Listen to this episode, in which Dahlia also discusses the latest telephonic Supreme Court arguments with Leah Litman, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.