Disasters have a way of focusing the mind, focusing our energies, and harnessing attention. The unfolding disaster that is the coronavirus pandemic is no different: the world is united in our focus on this singular enemy. What is different is that this pandemic is not a one-off event; this is not a storm that we will easily ‘ride out’. There is no clear blue sky on the horizon.
Scientists are making clear that until there is an effectively rolled out vaccine, our societies will be in a continuous state of adaptation – with spikes of infection corresponding to waves of grief, trauma, and economic damage. These cycles will influence and be influenced by political dynamics, including formal contestations between political actors, as well as informal influence by non-state actors and groups of malign actors.
The coronavirus pandemic – and the catastrophic knock-on effects it will have for food security, economic wellbeing and personal safety – require an urgent and essential investment by a range of international actors, including bilateral governments, the United Nations family, World Bank, IMF and others. As we grasp for tools we’ve deployed in response to previous disasters, many are invoking the “Build Back Better” frame, appreciating its emphasis on a recovery that aims to deliver relief while reinforcing resilience against future risk.
The problem is that all too often “Build Back Better” has been more a paper plan than a meaningful shift in the status quo, the focus all too often on infrastructural deficits rather than political or economic ones. As the virus makes its way around the world, the fundamental inequities in our system are being placed in stark relief.
“These aspirations are important. They provide a north star, a goal for our societies to reach for collectively.”
As governments, businesses, philanthropists and multilateral institutions move to actively deploy resources to address the massive consequences of the pandemic, how can we avoid reinforcing these inequities? Can we actually build a bridge to a more equitable, peaceful and just world for us all?
The world today is facing a battle between our aspiration and our reality. The aspirations as articulated in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals are lofty. A world with no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, clean water to drink and in our oceans; a world that is more peaceful, more just, and more inclusive. These aspirations are important. They provide a north star, a goal for our societies to reach for collectively. Even if we don’t reach all the targets, at least we are all pushing forward to make progress together.
Sadly, while major progress has been made in some areas, in others our aspirations have not been matched by our reality. As the UN has reported, progress towards Goal 16 of the SDGs is uneven: human trafficking and intentional homicides are on the increase, as are killings of human rights defenders and journalists.
“The British charity Oxfam warned that in Africa progress addressing poverty could be set back ‘by as much as 30 years'”
75% of cities globally have higher levels of income inequality than they did 20 years ago, and while income is not the only measure of inequality, it can serve as a proxy for other dimensions. In many countries this inequality is institutionalised, with a stark rise in authoritarianism; more governments today are classified as autocracies than democracies. Political violence is on the increase globally, including in many countries not in conflict, hindering progress for more peaceful societies. And while minor progress has been made on gender equality, women continue to be under-valued financially and over-threatened physically all over the world.
It was against this stark canvas that the coronavirus hit, and our reality got even worse. The World Food Program has warned of famines of “biblical” proportions in the coming months. The British charity Oxfam warned that in Africa progress addressing poverty could be set back “by as much as 30 years” with half a billion people possibly being pushed into poverty.
Rather than realising sustainable cities and communities, massive social disruption is occurring as people flee cities to rural areas to try to escape the virus and secure access to food. In other places migrant workers, those who service the extremes in wealth inequality through the provision of cheap and often abusive labor, are being detained in camps with questionable protective measures and little to no access to healthcare. And, as often happens during crisis, women – although apparently less likely to die from COVID-19 – are nonetheless suffering undue burden, from the economic to the physical.
“The coronavirus attacks indiscriminately, but communities and individuals do not experience the pandemic on an equal basis”
The coronavirus attacks indiscriminately, but communities and individuals do not experience the pandemic on an equal basis: “Whether in developed or developing countries, place-based disparities mean the poorest and most marginalized bear the brunt of the pandemic and face crowded housing, lack of medical care, and shortage of access to water.”
And, we would emphasise, they often face a greater threat of violence: violence at home, where intimate partner or family violence has been increasing; violence in transit and seeking income, as economic insecurity drives an increase in crime; violence from authority, where those at the economic margins are targeted by over-zealous law enforcement; and violence in the community, as criminal elements reorganise to expand control in the COVID-19 world.
Meanwhile, with the pandemic as ‘cover’ and in many instances inaccurately touting a superior performance by authoritarian states, many governments are making moves to further centralise power, reduce scope for dissent, and diminish oversight. As Rachel Kleinfeld has argued, “Despite attempts by politicians to use the crisis to tout their favored political model, the record so far does not show a strong correlation between efficacy and regime type.” And yet the slide towards authoritarianism could well continue.
In this context, what are well-intentioned suppliers of relief and recovery funding to do? What is the best way to prioritise? How should investments best be made in ways that do not exacerbate inequalities or propensities for human rights abuses, both of which are precursors for broader conflict and violence?
“It is now orthodox to take safety, climate resilience, and environmental conditions into account in building anew”
The mantra of #BuildBackBetter invokes the impressive results achieved in post-disaster reconstruction efforts, made possible because the global disaster preparedness and response architecture internalised the importance of using the opportunity of crisis response to correct defects and deficits in the physical infrastructure being rebuilt.
It is now orthodox to take safety, climate resilience, and environmental conditions into account in building anew, rather than simply replicating the infrastructure that had been damaged. This incorporation of engineering and design principles anchored in disaster- and climate-resilience has become standard practice in the recovery programs financed by large international development organisations.
As the global conversation about the intersectionality of disaster-climate risks and conflict-fragility risks has grown over the last five years, there has been an attempt to create space in the #BBB orthodoxy for the addition of principles and actions that would place social resilience in a position coequal with physical resilience.
The recent joint guidelines crafted by the World Bank and UNESCO for city reconstruction, for example, emphasise that “after natural disasters, careful attention to culture can make recovery, preparedness, and response programs more effective and sustainable … can enhance social cohesion and build bridges for reconciliation.”
“If relief is co-opted, it runs the risk of further entrenching inequities and pre-existing power dynamics.”
In spite of these aspirational shifts, however, the instinctive focus in the face of large-scale trauma, whether physical or economic, is to focus on getting back to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible, and the investments that are designed in that mindset rarely seek to fundamentally change pre-existing social dynamics.
This means that a pandemic response that pumps large sums of money into social safety nets that deliver life-saving resources will still under-serve marginalised communities or individuals whose ethnicity, social status, gender identity, or physical location in an informal settlement already puts them in harm’s way. It will also do little to nothing to fundamentally alter the structural conditions that foster marginalisation and inequalities in the first place.
If relief is co-opted, it runs the risk of further entrenching inequities and pre-existing power dynamics. We have seen this before – and without a fundamental shift, we will see it again.
International relief and humanitarian support is urgently needed. This global challenge requires a fundamentally global solution. We should take this moment to leverage that support to amplify those steps that could lead to real, fundamental shifts.
First, recognise women’s leadership value.
The combination of empathy, clarity of communication, and reliance on evidence and science that characterises the best pandemic leadership is not biologically determined (examples of both women and men are seen daily at local and state levels), but the standout national leaders on the global stage are women. Invest in women, listen to women, amplify the voices of women.
Further, repeat loudly that not only are the current spikes in violence against women unacceptable, so is the baseline, in which over 30% of women annually experience physical or sexual violence. Women are doing the lion’s share of essential services – from being 70% of health workers globally, to those who are predominantly stepping up to make masks and improvise other protective gear – yet continue to be under-valued. It is long overdue to galvanizegalvanise attention to the incredible inequality that exists between the sexes.
Second, recognise and prioritise legitimate local action.
This will require a particularly uncomfortable adjustment on the part of development banks, whose structural relationship is with national authorities and whose experience in the last two crises with global reach (1997–98 Asian monetary crisis and 2008–09 global financial crisis) will reinforce their bias towards acting nationally and trusting that resources and positive impact will ‘trickle down’ automatically.
Take seriously the imperative to support local, collective action. In Brazil and around the world, groups are raising money using a hashtag to buy food and sanitary supplies for those in need. Collective action formed in response to Mexico’s devastating 1985 earthquake not only exposed massive corruption, it also lay the groundwork for democratic inroads. Supporting and protecting localised collective action is not “just” an emergency response, it can also fundamentally shift popular participation in governance in ways that can be lasting and transformative.
Many protest movements that broke out last year are shifting to new “physically-distanced” modalities, maintaining a keen eye on their goals while protecting one another from the virus. Individuals know that advancing political freedom and the ability to protect public health should not be separated; our institutions of international governance must follow suit.
Third, direct “recovery” funds towards fundamentally shifting inequalities.
How it will work is a question, but South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed one tenth of emergency funds to the country’s most vulnerable, stating: “We are resolved not merely to return our economy to where it was before the coronavirus, but to forge a new economy in a new global reality … founded on fairness, empowerment, justice and equality.”
In countries of all income levels, the dramatic scale of financing required to both respond to immediate needs and build a new, more fair reality brings with it a looming debt crisis. Global and regional IFIs will need to mobilise their shareholders and spend their political capital to create debt freeze and forgiveness options that ensure the post-vaccine reality does not struggle under impossible fiscal burdens. However, this will not ensure money freed up by governments will go towards addressing structural inequalities. For that there must be further external and – importantly – internal measures to ensure accountability, protecting journalists and civic space, as per the above point, being crucial.
Fourth, double down on the importance of governance and transparency, supporting renewed democratic imperatives and engagement.
Now is not the time to pull back. Rather, it is the time to dig deep. Development banks in particular have an opportunity here to assemble their best practices in transparency and participation, together with learnings from community-driven recovery and development programs, and integrate those into pandemic financing, whether public health projects or budget support loans.
Indeed, trust in government will aid in the pandemic response, so now is the time for brave conversations between IFIs and national leaders, with an insistence on transparency and inclusion. This is neither political bias nor 80s-style conditionality: this is a recognition of the existential need for states to leave no citizen behind as they respond to this threat.
Finally, don’t lose sight of the positives that are emerging.
Even as the pandemic shines this bright light on weakness and inequality, there are unexpected positive side-effects in areas ranging from labour and the environment to education and healthcare that offer transient gifts that could be made permanent: a higher priority on living wages and working conditions, a stronger default to virtual work to reduce carbon emissions, a righting of unbalanced education investments. But none of these will simply emerge; transitioning temporary side-effects to permanent change requires sustained investment and political leadership.
In 2018, the flagship Pathways for Peace report from the United Nations and World Bank noted that “a society’s ability to manage conflict constructively is tested continuously by risks that push it toward violence and by opportunities to advance sustainable development and peace.”
In a deep and exhaustive investigation, the Pathways research identified four arenas of contestation, or domains in which conflict and violence play out. Seen through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, the most important of these is “the way in which services are delivered and the inclusiveness and perceptions of fairness in service delivery,” which the authors note “matter as much as—perhaps more than—the quality of services delivered.”
Disrupting pre-existing structures of exclusion and inequality by prioritising a pandemic response that explicitly addresses those harmful traditions and patterns is not only a prophylactic against immediate violence, but is a critical step toward foundations of more equitable social and economic conditions when the blue sky of a post-vaccine world dawns.
We can #BuildaBridgeToBetter, uniting our efforts and capacities, forging a new path forward.