This is not our first polycrisis.
In January 1975, British historian Geoffrey Barraclough surveyed the global economy and saw “an unwilling world, preoccupied with inflation and mounting unemployment… suddenly brought face to face with the twin issues of food and energy.” If the specific issues of hunger, heat, and inflationary pressure sound familiar to the contemporary reader, so will their frightening combination:
“The gathering crisis has so many facets, so many interlocking ramifications, each reacting upon the other, until in the end we seem to be trapped in a deteriorating situation with no obvious solution in sight.”
Today, the pillars of the international economic order crack as the tectonic plates of global geopolitics shift beneath them. “The world is between orders; it is adrift,” wrote Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon in August. Then, too, global conflicts over territory, resources, and the monetary system generated profound uncertainty about the shape of the world to come. We were, in the polycrisis of the 1970s, “waiting for a new order.”
But the peoples of the Global South did not simply wait for the ‘great powers’ to reorder the world around them. At Accra, Algiers, and Hanoi, they led fearless struggles of national liberation. At Bandung, Cairo, and Dakar, they formed a non-aligned movement to advance the principles of peace, sovereignty, and coexistence. And in New York City, they proposed a vision of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) — and won a UN Declaration for its establishment.
The NIEO addressed the very sources of the polycrisis we face today. The soaring cost of food: the NIEO mandated global action against food shortages, concrete measures to enable countries to import food without running down foreign exchange, and the assurance of global access to productive fertilizers. The severity of sovereign debt: the NIEO called for the cancellation of historical debts, the issuance of new IMF Special Drawing Rights, and the expansion of condition-free, concessional development financing. The domination of natural resources: against the foreign extraction of oil, metals, and minerals, NIEO declared “full permanent sovereignty of every State over its natural resources.” The concentration of critical technology: against the hoarding of intellectual property, the NIEO demanded the transfer of technology to the Third World, and new institutions to facilitate “international co-operation in research and development.”
Today’s polycrisis has an additional accelerator: a rapidly changing climate. Droughts, floods, and hurricanes amplify adjacent crises and inflame conflicts between peoples and nations. Our response, however, will require new answers to the same old questions from the prior polycrisis: What are the institutions that we must build? How can we wrestle resources from the old masters? And how must we distribute resources among the peoples and nations of the world?
Answers to these questions appear today with increasing force and frequency. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a call to suspend the intellectual property protections that propped up pharmaceutical profits over human lives. At the UN General Assembly in September, an invitation to cancel Southern debt in return for climate action — in the words of Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, to “exchange debt for life.” And at the COP27 negotiations in Egypt, a proposal for Loss and Damage facilities to compensate Southern countries for the destruction wrought by a climate crisis for which they bear little fault.
Our task today is to unite these proposals and revive the spirit that animated the NIEO five decades ago. What is the common vision to confront the polycrisis today? What is the plan to win it? What is the New International Economic Order for the 21st century?
Today, the Progressive International initiates a new global process that calls on scholars, policymakers, and political representatives from around the world to answer these questions, to learn from the successes and shortcomings of the NIEO then, and to renew its spirit on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
The old NIEO failed. The commodity boom faltered, sovereign debt exploded, and the unity of nations that constructed the NIEO splintered. The decade that followed was lost for the Global South, and won by the United States in the reassertion of its unilateral power. But its vision did not die — inspiring generations that followed to keep the flame of Southern solidarity alive.
Today, we cannot afford to fail. Renewing the NIEO is not only a matter of social justice. In the age of escalating climate crisis, it is a necessity for survival. We convene this process in that spirit of urgency, creativity, and solidarity. The world is between orders. Our task is to build the one that comes next — in the name of peace, sovereignty, and prosperous coexistence.
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