Polycrisis: Identifying Opportunities and Designing Solutions

Published on 9th February 2023

I come to you from a beautiful country nestled in the south east of Africa called Mozambique. There may be seven time zones and a few oceans that separate us, but the challenges we experience in my corner of the world are strikingly similar to those found here. 

You see, never before has the human family felt our interconnectedness as acute and as strongly, as over the past few years. 

Matters of life and death meet us at each of our doorsteps. A deadly virus halted us all our tracks. COVID left us grieving the same tears over the death of loved ones, the loss of jobs and income, and the recognition of our failures of a human race to build education, health and economic systems that could withstand shocks to their architecture. We all experience an interdependence of impact – negative or positive – which we can no longer ignore. 

From Seoul to Maputo, children the world over are suffering from learning loss. As we sit here today, 222 million young people have been forced out of school by conflict and crisis over these past few years. Those who are charged with powering the economies of tomorrow and leading us into innovations of discovery are being locked out of critical learning opportunities. The very promise of a vibrant future as a human family is at grave risk. 

We saw the gains of past decades on human development wiped out in months by the COVID and its associated impacts, and now, by a war with an epicenter in Europe but whose collateral damage ripples out to every continent on earth.  We are spiraling further and further into what scholars are calling a “polycrisis” – a tangled knot of crises spanning global systems that significantly degrade our quality of life and threaten existence as we know it. 

As we were barely keeping our heads above COVID-19 waters, the war in Ukraine triggered a tidal wave of skyrocketing inflation that has engulfed us all and left us swimming in cost of living, food production and energy crisises, and in a sea of social unrest. Let me not forget to include the climate crisis in this perfect storm, which is leaving millions defenseless against disruptive extreme weather events, exacerbating disruptions to global food production, and wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods globally. 

In my home country of Mozambique alone, over the past 5 years we have experienced an unprecedented number of devastating cyclones and floods, which have killed hundreds of people, and displaced millions of families, and caused irreparable damage and losses in excess of 3 billion dollars.[i] 

As the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities and hit under resourced communities hardest, make no mistake that the impacts of the ‘polycrisis’ we are grappling with today are most acutely felt by those most vulnerable and marginalized. It is the lowest income countries, it is women and children, it is those on the fringes of every society without social protections and rights, who are suffering most. 

At an alarming rate, resources are being diverted away from sorely needed investments in health, education, water and sanitation and other areas critical to our wellbeing and survival. Instead, billions of dollars are being mobilized for increased military expenditures, expanded battlefield capabilities, and expensive trade wars. This constellation of disasters has left us with a frightening decline in human development. 

A fundamental shift to re-engineer society is needed. This is why I am glad that we have convened here today in the spirit of identifying pathways of opportunity and designing solutions for our global family. 

I humbly offer a few suggestions for government decision makers, captains of industry, brilliant academics and researchers, and decision makers with the power to mobilize the influence and resources necessary to untangle ourselves from this complex ‘polycrisis’ barbed wire that has a stranglehold on us all to consider. 

Governments and global institutions must double down on investments in human capital and development and not waver in their commitments or deviate from prioritizing the ‘human’ in humanity. We must focus on investing in our human capital and the recovery of our families and communities—the bedrocks of our societies and economies. 

While we unravel these “polycrises” and strive to confront the weaknesses of our health systems and the inequities of our economic systems, we must also dismantle entrenched social inequalities with equal vigour.  As we do so, no meaningful transformation or permanent resolution to the problems we face can take place without having women’s leadership AND women’s rights and wellbeing at the heart of these strategies. 

Without conscious efforts to centre women and girls at the core of responses to COVID, conflict, economic downturn and climate change, we risk the perpetuation of unhealthy power imbalances we have lived with for far too long, and miss a critical window of opportunity to redesign human relationships into one of mutual respect and equity. 

COVID has shown us that women’s leadership has proven critical for us as a human family when faced with crisis. From New Zealand to Germany, and from Finland to Taiwan, female heads of state managed to contain the virus and reduce death tolls far better than any of their male counterparts globally.[ii] Their remarkable response strategies have been studied the world over, and in most cases, considered as best practice. 

From right here in Seoul, your first female commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency[iii]spearheaded Korea’s successful pandemic response efforts and her leadership was heralded as a global example.[iv]  And not only were women effective at leading political and public health responses to COVID, but many were key in the development of vaccines and treatments for the virus itself. 

Scientists led by Dr. Sarah Gilbert in the UK developed the Oxford-Astrazenca vaccine and more than half her team were female.  In the United States, the brilliant African-American viral immunologist, Dr. Kizzy Corbett brought to life the Moderna vaccine. Their contributions to humanity and to history will be long remembered. 

These are inspiring examples of women’s leadership tackling our most pressing global problems, and there are many more to enumerate. Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed, one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats and the pride of the African continent, is fiercely committed to achieving the SDGs and building a world that is better for us all. From the bold economist Kristalina Georgieva at the helm of the IMF pushing for greater economic cooperation to navigate us out of this period of heightened global economic uncertainty, to my dear friend Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala bringing her years of experience in economic reform to the World Trade Organization, to Prime Minister Mia Mottley from Barbados consistently speaking truth to power and offering sound solutions to climate change and innovations in our financial systems; women the world over are proving we have an influential weapon in our midst: the power of female leadership. 

And it is not just the women in visible positions of power: there are mothers and sisters in our homes, in our communities, in rural villages and bustling cities alike, with varied skill sets and professions, and from different political, ethnic and religious leanings, who are reshaping our world. And there are many more, if we are brave enough to systemically invest in their potential, who can fruitfully agitate for change in their spheres of influence as well. 

Women the world over fuel our economies. Women contribute to 37% of the Global GDP and over 80% of consumer spending is driven by women.[v]  They exercise household purchasing power, yet are left out of critical board rooms and shareholder discussions at the top of economic and financial decision-making. Women have micro-level influence, but deserve macro level-power. 

Female executives remain vastly underrepresented in the corporate boardrooms of 20 economies in the Asia-Pacific region, holding only approximately 15% of board seats within the region’s top 1,500 companies. [vi]

I leave your brilliant minds to find the answers to key questions which need resolution: 

  • Why are there still so few women in leadership roles in business?
  • Why are companies struggling to respond to today’s female consumer?
  • Why is there a persistent pay gap between men and women around the world? 

Female consumers, employees, entrepreneurs and decision makers are key to unlocking the economic progress we all seek. Particularly here in Korea, women are central labour market solutions to the challenges of an ageing workforce, falling birth rates and skill shortages. Strategic measures need to be put in place to retain women of child-bearing and child-rearing age in the workforce, and ensure they rise in decision-making ranks. Developing and fairly remunerating female talent is essential for sustainable economic growth. 

Korea has outpaced the rest of the world when it comes to development and technological innovation. Surely you can also be at the forefront of revolutionizing the workplace. The world needs you to apply your transformative creativity to developing pathways that ensure women’s leadership is exercising its muscle at the highest echelons of business and throughout the economy. 

Shifting gears for a minute, before I conclude —- Of particular urgency is the involvement of women in all aspects of conflict resolution and nation building. Women are innate bridge builders and should be deployed to bring about an end to the war in Ukraine, alongside other protracted conflicts causing devastation: from Myanmar to Yemen to Palestine, as all conflicts merit swift resolution. 

And in closing, must add that globally there needs to be a massive injection of investment and attention given to girls in STEM. We have the opportunity to leverage Artificial Intelligence and digital technologies in responsible and strategic ways to advance the human race. Innovations to accelerate climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, inventions in agriculture to address food insecurity, and new ways to bridge the digital divide to further education and economic growth are just a few examples. 

Korea is the land of innovation. We need you to continue being thought leaders and industry disruptors, and use your skill and innovative prowess to catapult us forward. Reverse the trend of technology being demarcation of inequality, and help us bridge digital divides with research and development of technologies that yield advancements for both rural and urban communities, the Global North and Global South alike. Well regulated, rights-based applications of technologies can reinvent our communication, education and health systems, transport infrastructures, and food and energy supplies and have the potential to lift millions out of poverty and set us on course prosperity in every corner of the globe. Let’s make sure that as we create new realms of reality, that we bring along the creativity, ingenuity and intellect of girls and women in this tech journey as well. 

This ‘polycrisis’ we find ourselves in now presents us with an opportunity to innovate in our ways of being and test an undeniable truth: the leadership of women is essential for us to effectively re-create a world that is more human-centered, healthy and prosperous for us all.

By Grace Machel

One of the world's leading advocates for women's and children's rights

[i] https://reliefweb.int/report/mozambique/mozambique-tropical-cyclones-idai-and-kenneth-emergency-appeal-ndeg-mdrmz014-final-report#:~:text=An%20estimated%20715%2C000%20hectares%20of,many%20rural%20areas%20were%20affected.

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/why-do-female-leaders-seem-to-be-more-successful-at-managing-the-coronavirus-crisis

[iii] https://time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2020/5888333/jung-eun-kyeong/

[iv] https://www.salzburgglobal.org/news/latest-news/article/building-trust-looking-to-south-koreas-eun-kyeong-jung-on-the-essence-of-good-leadership-in-national-health-crises

[v] https://www.bankrate.com/loans/personal-loans/purchasing-power-of-women-statistics/#purchasing

[vi] https://globewomen.org/CWDINet/index.php/2018-fortune-global-200-companies-2/

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