The slogan “build back better” has become widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to the extent it is used to promise a recovery that ensures less risk of a repeat, greater equality and more opportunity, that’s a wonderful thing. But it has also been adopted in the global development community, where the term comes with a history—and not a great one. That history provides good reason to rethink some of the approaches being proposed in an attempt to grasp opportunity from a crisis.
Development policymakers and advocacy groups (even the odd think tank expert) have revived build back better over the last year, but it isn’t a new idea. Disaster recovery that ensures better resilience in the face of the next disaster has been a (sensible) central part of relief efforts for decades. But in the US in particular the term was given a broader meaning by President Clinton in 2010 with regard to the Haiti earthquake. Building back better, he said, meant “not just to repair the damage done but to lay the foundations for the long term sustainable development that has eluded [Haiti] for so long.” You might have though the inadequacies of the response effort would have killed it off. In 2009, Haiti’s GDP per capita was $1,150. In 2019 it was $1,272—a 10 percent climb in a decade, or less than a percentage point of growth a year. Hardly miracle progress, only just building back.
This idea of build back better was a variant on the “crisis as opportunity” framework, which too often has translated into “their crisis is our opportunity to push reforms we think they need.” Crisis as opportunity undergirded the development industry’s response to the oil price rises and debt stress of the 1970s and 1980s: structural adjustment lending used the leverage bought by strapped government budgets to buy policy reform promises from privatization through exchange rate liberalization. The legacy of adjustment lending is hotly contested: did the conditionality stick, and if so, did the policies advocated do any good? But it is fair to say that, at the least, the approach generated considerable ill will.
And structural adjustment was a case where it was plausible to argue that at least some of the reason for the extent of the crisis in developing countries was poor decision-making. With pandemics, there isn’t the same potential for moral hazard: the fear that financing countries just sustains the bad policy choices that (arguably) got them into a mess in the first place. The imported economic impacts of the coronavirus, just like tectonic plate movements under Haiti, couldn’t have been avoided through better governance. But we do know slowing down assistance to countries in crisis as policy packages are agreed means that people will suffer from an extended economic contraction—with all of the long-term implications for health and well-being.
The concern with building back better applies to climate conditionality, as well. The low-income countries that are most vulnerable to global economic crises aren’t the ones that are responsible for climate change. Nor are those countries the ones that most mishandled COVID-19. But the countries that didn’t produce the greenhouse gas emissions and didn’t fumble the pandemic response would be the ones that pay as a result of any environmental policy conditionality around build back better funding, and they would get that funding later. On top of that, COVID-19 destroyed people, their livelihoods, and the connections between them. It left infrastructure intact. Crisis response should focus on where the damage was done. If “build back better” translates into resources moved from rebuilding livelihoods to climate mitigation (from IDA to the Green Climate Fund, as it might be), that means building back less.
As it turns out, the Chinese character set for crisis is not made up of the combined characters for danger and opportunity. And it isn’t an opportunity that millions have been thrown back into utter destitution in the past few months; it is a tragedy. Our only priority should be to respond as rapidly as possible to limit the damage, with a particular focus on those who were already disadvantaged by inequalities before the pandemic struck.