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CWA # 281, 9 May 2020

United against COVID-19
Will COVID-19 provide a new agenda to the NAM?

  Rashmi Ramesh

Despite the challenges, there are some capabilities. Medical infrastructure in countries like India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Singapore are developed and better equipped.

On 4 May, the countries of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) discussed the prevailing global situation relating to COVID-19, and the probability of joint efforts to combat the pandemic. The objective was to boost cooperation and coordination among the member countries in the wake of COVID-19. The virtual summit with the theme "United Against COVID-19", was initiated by the Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, and also the NAM Chairperson. 

Is COVID-19 a rejuvenation to the Non-Aligned Movement?
NAM is a grouping of diverse countries across continents, having common goals and rationale to come together on a single platform. Decolonization, disarmament, world peace, demilitarization, equality, anti-apartheid, development and poverty alleviation were the ideals on which the NAM stood strong. 

However, that is history now.

In the post-Cold War period, the relevance of non-alignment as a strategy began dwindling. Critics opine that NAM lost its relevance and there is no single thread that can connect such diverse expanse of countries. 

The contemporary question is: with COVID-19 raging, do the non-aligned countries have a new agenda today? 

Specific Challenges: Small countries, Migration, and the Post-COVID world
During the virtual summit, India highlighted the need to strengthen cooperation among the member states, which was echoed by all the leaders. There are serious challenges for the NAM. 

First, the small countries such as the Maldives emphasized on the necessary steps that the NAM must take, in order to support the small island developing countries. Undoubtedly, they are among the worst affected, as they depend on only one or two industries/sectors such as tourism to sustain the economy. The lockdown and travel restriction imposed by others have adversely affected such tertiary industries. 

Second, COVID-19 has given rise to problems related to Migration. The European countries, the United States and West Asia see immigration as one of the major Pandemic issues. Migrants and refugees in West Asia, Europe, and the US are issues of concern. Bangladesh called for a "meaningful global strategy" to be formulated specifically for migrant workers. 

Third, the future of the current global order was discussed by leaders of various countries, including India. Prime Minister Modi said that the pandemic has exposed loopholes in the global order. Venezuela echoed similar views and said that a new world order based on solidarity and multilateralism must come in. Given that NAM always stood for a fair and equal world and NIEO, the discussion on changing the current world order does not come as a surprise. 

A new push, with a common rationale?
It seems like these major issues have given a much-needed push to a grouping that was passive due to the lack of an issue that was common to the member countries. COVID-19 has provided a rationale for NAM to sustain and work better in the health sector in the current times as well as in the future. The crisis also has paved the way for certain matters that require cooperation to deal with. Even though COVID-19 does not discriminate between developed and the developing world, the latter are at a disadvantage as opposed to the former. The spill-over effects are a tinge darker in the developing countries. Therefore, this pandemic is also rejuvenating the South-South cooperation, an important aspect of NAM. 

NAM took a middle path during the Cold War. COVID-19 has probably once again divided the world, this time between US and China. NAM may provide a platform for its members to once again take a stance of non-alignment, without being caught between the politics of Cold War 2.0. 

The Capacity Question
The biggest hit to India's foreign policy came during 1962, when the NAM countries did not do enough to help a founding member fight China. Questions on the capacity of Non-Alignment Movement became clear with this incident. 

NAM is a grouping of developing countries who are dependent on their developed counterparts for monetary and medical aid, scientific knowledge, technology and capacity building. Therefore, the lack of capacity is the main impediment. Juxtaposing this with the EU virtual meet held in the same time, the differences in capacity and resources become clearer. 

Political and leadership challenges are quite evident. The grouping has a membership of a large number of countries, unlike the EU or other regional organizations which have limited members and are much more united. Along with this, there are leadership challenges as well. Founding members like India have sidelined the NAM after the Cold War ended. Egypt and Ghana have political and economic issues at the national level. Lack of initiatives from founding members has also contributed to NAM's reduced voice at the global level. This can be again compared to the EU, where Germany and France have been the driving force behind the organization. An event like Brexit failed to deter the EU from maintaining its relevance. 

The NAM summit ended with just a declaration that the member countries would support the initiatives and plans of the UN to tackle the pandemic. However, the need of the hour was a concrete action plan from these countries. Though Sri Lanka urged the countries to set up a NAM taskforce for managing the problems arising out of the pandemic, this did not happen. 
Despite the challenges, there are some capabilities. Medical infrastructure in countries like India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Singapore are developed and better equipped. Indian pharmaceutical companies have a niche in the generic drug market and export important life-saving drugs to other countries, including the developed ones. A definite agreement amongst the NAM countries will help fight COVID-19 in an effective manner. 

Rashmi Ramesh is a PhD scholar at the Science Diplomacy Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

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