The ‘build back better’ refrain has taken hold globally as countries weigh up strategies for dealing with the social and economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Implicit in the slogan is an acknowledgement that the pre- pandemic economic model is no longer fit for purpose and that a return to business as usual risks both societal stability and environmental resilience.
Amid rising inequality and job insecurity, the value of democracy itself is being questioned as democratic governments and institutions struggle to prove their effectiveness. At the same time, the model is allowing nature to be stripped of its ability to sustain life and human livelihoods, while multilateral institutions are failing to provide the buffers of fairness and balance for which they were created.
These challenges have been evident throughout the pandemic, which can only really be navigated and ultimately defeated through high levels of cooperation and collaboration between countries, as well as within them.
Instead, the dishonesty displayed at the start of the virus has been followed by discord and disharmony in the global response to it, even to the point where the tools for navigating Covid-19 ahead of a vaccine, such as the wearing of face masks, have been politicised to the point of triggering violence. Worryingly, too, some of the world’s most democratic societies have proved the most ineffective in dealing with the pandemic, emboldening more authoritarian governments.
While not all of these trends have been evident in South Africa, the pandemic has nevertheless served to amplify the domestic fault lines of corruption, poverty, inequality and, most concerning of all, rising unemployment. It has also shone a spotlight on the lack of capacity within the public sector.
Despite this malaise, some valuable thought leadership has also emerged over the past few months on what the priorities should be when countries craft their reconstruction strategies.
It is increasingly evident that building back better will require not only a material strengthening of national and international health systems and infrastructure, it will also require changes to the way we produce, consume, learn, travel and work – changes that should improve prospects for sustainable livelihoods in sustainable environments.
In many ways, South Africa has a ready-baked recovery plan as the social partners all agree that future resilience can be vastly improved by dealing with gaping social and economic infrastructure backlogs. What the pandemic has brought to the fore, however, is the need to make these investment choices through the prism of future resilience.
In other words, do these projects support the creation of direct and indirect jobs that will be sustained over the long term and in a carbon- constrained world and can these projects be pursued in a way that does not undermine the long-term health of the natural environment and the communities they serve?
Building back better in the South African context – where fiscal resources are limited and implementation capacity is weak – is going to depend largely on whether government is able to direct, rather than control, the reconstruction effort.