Parliamentary Response to Crisis: The Coronavirus crisis will end – preparation now is vital

Written for GPG and the Arab British Chamber of Commerce by former FCO Minister and MP, Alistair Burt.

Adapting to the situation we are left in due to the Covid-19 crisis is crucial for companies across the globe. GPG is intending to extend and expand what we have always done by continuing communication, providing advice, guidance and mentoring to our partners whether we are in-country or not.  Our Parliamentary Response To Crisis series is designed to gather together the thoughts and experience of parliamentary experts on the current Covid-19 pandemic, the response of governments and what comes next. 

GPG’s work supporting politicians, officials and ministers to strengthen governance and improve the quality of policy and legislation in countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf has often focused on bridging the gap between the public and private sectors, and how government and business can work more effectively together to drive innovation and economic growth. Here Alistair Burt reflects on the challenges affecting businesses during the current global pandemic; why the work of businesses like GPG matters now more than ever; and the necessity for agility, adaptation, and co innovation across business and politics.

It goes without saying that it is still, as yet, much too early to be definitive in our calculations of the impact on trade and investment of the Coronavirus which dominates virtually every aspect of our lives, from almost a standing start just a handful of weeks ago. But you don’t need volumes of data in order to pull out the basics-we all know this is a worse crisis than any living and active business executive anywhere in the world has ever had to face.

The bad news first. A handful of statistics illustrate all the rest. Goldman Sachs reckons that 92% of global GDP is impacted by social distancing measures; the Global Business Travel Association, which calculates an annual spend of $1trn, reckons it is now slashed by a third; and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) believes that Foreign Direct Investment will tumble by 30-40% during 2020 and into next year. And that’s just the current assessments.

The economies of the Middle East face some tough sectoral pressures. Energy, basic materials, and aviation are under huge pressure. Oil demand has collapsed, as has the price, damaging not just sales but the balance of a number of economies which depend on a price per barrel far in excess of its current variant, with uncertainty continuing over prospects for a production deal between OPEC and Russia. Tourism, a mainstay of employment for many states, including those with rising young populations hungry for work, has been brought abruptly to an end.

Whether or not we should all have been better prepared for the outbreak of a virus which those involved in global health security have been warning about for some time, is a matter for future, though vital, inquiry, to ensure we are better prepared for the next, or similar. In the meantime, however, there is no doubt that worldwide human resilience to disaster kicks in and it is equally clear that action already taken and still to be taken will mitigate the economic effects of the virus. Humanity as a whole does not normally sit back in despair.

Individual economies have taken unprecedented steps. The US
has a package of $2.2trn, the UK’s Conservative Government is offering well over £300bn. Stimulation packages across the GCC are worth $94bn. The UAE is protecting small business to the tune of $23bn, and all seem likely to be increased. A common theme is to confront the dilemma of how to keep small business, the lifeline of many households and employment, afloat, to ensure money is coming in to enable it to be spent, so that business and commerce just does not collapse completely. For some governments to hand out wages may be easier than for others; but we are all doing it.

Collectively, the world’s response has been slower than that to the financial crash of 2008, but it is picking up. The initiative of Saudi Arabia in hosting a virtual G20 seems to have galvanised action, as many commentators have expressed deep concern that current trends towards a weakening of multilateralism, from action on climate change to paralysis of the UNSC, would emerge in a global ‘dog eat dog’ response to the virus. We have already seen some ugly stories- such as alleged ‘piracy’ of much needed protective equipment, or efforts to commandeer exclusivity of a vaccine,-which demonstrate the inevitable risk of states reacting instinctively to protect themselves, ignoring repeated warnings from the WHO and UN that we are only as strong as the weakest. Beggaring our neighbours’ response to the virus won’t save our populations.

While much of this macro response may be out of our individual hands, now for better news. Individual businesses are not ready to roll over either, and already we are seeing countless examples of new thinking, and new working. We are getting used to video conferencing and remote working, those fortunate to be in businesses where this is possible. But this is just the tip of a sand dune. For those economies reasoning that diversification away from natural resources was on the way, there
is more than a chance that today’s response to the crisis will lead to the long term changes that were necessary in any case. The human ability to make the most of a crisis, and use disaster as the springboard to victory is remarkable. The whole concept of ‘smart’, as demonstrated at the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona in November 2019 will be getting an immense boost, from AI to blockchain technology, from transportation to habitat as we pause and consider what long term trends we could now be forecasting as we make necessary adaptations now, and begin to consider how work will change ‘after’.

GPG’s business of continuing political and administrative professional development may be representative of others in recognising that everything has changed. Although some changes will be temporary, the truth is likely to be that some things may have changed forever. There is little mileage in waiting and seeing in business. If change is coming, be first and be out there.

Business recognises that life has not just changed for suppliers, but customers too. They are not travelling either. They are wanting their suppliers to be working at being ahead of the curve, not waiting for ‘things to settle down’. We at GPG know our existing and future interlocutors are keen for us to continue, value our work, and are looking for us to find innovative ways to develop our work. We are working with a ready audience, open to new ideas.

We recognise that the new situation means that no one medium or style of learning will work for all our partners. Thus, we are developing separate styles of delivery. There is still the traditional interactive group training, which can be done as well remotely as in the same room. We have one-to-one mentoring, training, and problem-clinics, all bookable in advance. Our peer-to-peer training and networking – connecting political counterparts in several different countries around shared interests and concerns- goes on unabated.

But most of our businesses will flourish, not just in meeting the unusual demands of the moment, but forging new ways of working through experimental collaboration and iteration (‘test and learn’), with our clients. In line with GPG’s adaptive and iterative approach to all political problem-solving, we regard this as an opportunity to create new forms of remote interaction and learning. Our partners will be vital in telling us what they need, what works, and how we can improve so that in the short-term will work quickly to continue delivering in the most effective way, maintaining momentum and working with our partners, but also we will be tweaking and adapting in line with our partners’ feedback to develop more long-solutions, so that we create online and remote learning platforms that are co-designed by, and responsive to the needs of, our local partners.

At macro and micro level, we can overcome the challenge of the age, but getting out in front, and preparing for the future is something throughout the Arab world, and beyond, many businesses can be doing.