When writing the introduction to last year’s Annual Report, at the end of March 2020, I wrote that “the world [found] itself in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis”. One could not have imagined then that this was only the beginning of a long crisis which is still ongoing. One year later, the global total of confirmed cases is now around 125 million infected persons, still on the rise, and obviously underestimating the real number (see www.ourworldindata.org, www.arcgis.com). The number of confirmed daily deaths is around 9000, which is grossly double the number of one year ago. The cumulative number of confirmed deaths is approaching 2,8 million. This is also an underestimation and hides substantial variation in registration methods, registration capacities and registration policies. According to the latest OECD estimations, world GDP showed a contraction of about -3,4% in 2020. However, this average figure hides quite some variation: whereas countries like Argentina or the UK showed numbers of around -10%, and the Euro area around -7%, countries like Turkey and China managed to maintain positive growth numbers (+1,8% and + 2,3%, respectively) (see www.oecd.org/economic-outlook/march-2021). These national figures are again averages that hide variation; for many people around the world, COVID-19 means, if not illness or worse, job or income loss and poverty. Available projections allow for some optimism though: the world economy is projected to grow by more than 5% in 2021 and around 4% in 2022. The speed and the coverage of the vaccination campaigns are thereby a crucial variable.
The COVID-19 crisis has invited us, all over the world, to reflect on the effectiveness of health and other public policies, on “the world we want”, on the role of the state in the economy and in society, and on the multi-level nature of governance and policymaking. The most comprehensive tracking exercise of COVID-related public policy responses worldwide to date leads to some interesting findings (see Thomas Hale’s “What we learned from tracking every COVID policy in the world” in The Conversation, 24 March 2021): even if certain patterns of effective policy response can be identified (typically involving sharper restrictions in combination with stronger economic support), it is not yet clear which factors that contribute to pandemic preparedness matter most. It is yet not clear how national healthcare capacity, income levels, democracy or administrative centralisation contribute to policy responsiveness in a health crisis situation of this magnitude. However, the authors behind the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker do come to the conclusion that more inter-governmental cooperation will be needed to leave the pandemic behind us.
This inter-governmental cooperation will have to play out at different levels: in border zones, bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally. Of particular relevance for UNU-CRIS is the observation that, as also illustrated in different parts of the world, there is potential (need?) for more regional cooperation to tackle this pandemic and to increase health system preparedness for future crisis situations. The role of regional cooperation and regional organizations potentially ranges thereby from serving as bridges between national and global policy levels, over strengthening disease surveillance, facilitating trade of goods and services, joint procurement, border management, to coordination of health policies (for example, see my article with Ana Amaya “Regional cooperation is essential to combatting health emergencies in the Global South” in Globalization and Health, 17:9, 2021).
UNU-CRIS has contributed and continues to contribute to this discussion by producing think pieces and analyses in different formats: blogs, policy briefs and working papers (see pg. 33).
Above all, the COVID-crisis has been a difficult period to navigate for our institute, due to lockdowns, restrictions on international travel, and obligatory telework. Some of our staff members have also personally been affected by the disease. But overall, we have shown agility to adapt to the new circumstances. This Annual Report includes some testimonials on the impact of COVID-19 on their research (see from pg. 9). Several events were either cancelled or postponed, including the bi-annual EU in International Affairs Conference held in Brussels (postponed to 26-28 May 2021), our traditional Doctoral School on Comparative Regionalism held in Quito, the UNESCO Day and Feest in’t Park both in Bruges, regular research seminars, invited lectures, and more. We experimented with virtual internships and virtual visiting research fellowships. This way, we were able to welcome several new faces, be it by means of Zoom meetings.
In spite of all the difficulties that we faced, we tried to be as productive as possible. The new structure of our research programme was implemented (see "UNU-CRIS Research Structure" on the previous page). It is now organized around a core of work streams (clusters) under the heading of ‘regional public goods’ (RPGs): migration and social policy, trade and investment, digital governance, climate and natural resources, health, and security. This work is further supported with data-related work in the RIKS cluster (Regional Integration Knowledge System) and the cross-cutting work on conceptual frameworks and institutional dynamics in the Re-LAB cluster (Regions and Cities Governance Lab). Thanks to the efforts of all personnel, we have again harvested a rich bundle of impactful research outputs and activities, as can be discovered in this report.
At the end of 2020, we have welcomed the decision of the Flemish Government to bring the core funding, after several years, back to its historical level of 1 million EUR annually (see figure above). This, together with the continued support of our university partners (UGent and VUB), should allow UNU-CRIS to operate in the coming years again at a minimum scale needed to be a performant research institute and deliver in proportion to its ambitious (global) mandate. UNU-CRIS will continue its efforts to attract additional external research funding, even if a context of tightening public research funds can be expected.
Finally, I would like to thank all personnel members for their efforts, patience and resilience in this difficult year. I would also like to thank the continued support of our stakeholders: UNU, under the leadership of Rector Dr. David Malone; the Flemish Government for its financial support; our two Flemish partner universities, Ghent University (UGent) and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB); the Province of West-Flanders; the City of Bruges; the Universidad Andina - UASB; the Diplomatische Akademie Wien; other funding agencies, policymakers and regionalism scholars with whom we collaborate all over the world. Looking forward to a better year?
Philippe De Lombaerde
Director ad interim