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How Social Development Steps Up To The Plate in Times of Crisis: Learning from the Past, Surviving the Pandemic, Creating Sustainable Futures

7 Apr 2020

  • Author(s): UNRISD

How Social Development Steps Up To The Plate in Times of Crisis: Learning from the Past, Surviving the Pandemic, Creating Sustainable Futures
This blog post is part of the UNRISD Covid-19 series, in which authors explore the uneven distribution of impacts of both the pandemic and the crisis response, as well as the social, political and economic drivers of these disparities. The series will engage UNRISD’s networks and draw on its vast body of social development research to provide evidence-based responses to the current crisis as it develops and suggest viable strategies for a future where similar crises are not only less devastating, but also less likely to happen.


As we finish writing this post, about half of the global population is confined—to varying degrees—to their homes. In this period of isolation, our daily physical interactions with the wider world outside our doors have all but disappeared, yet a striking reality has become more visible than ever before: the deep cracks running through our global system. These cracks—through which, even in times of prosperity, many fall—have given way to gaping chasms, bringing millions face to face with the vast and often obscured precarity of the current era, marked by increasing austerity, disinvestment in public services, regressive taxation systems, concentration of wealth, and ongoing crises such as climate change and conflict. Further, these deep-rooted structural flaws have created a situation in which we are seeing vastly uneven distribution of impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, both within countries—in terms of job security, access to health care, housing, citizenship status, and so on—and between countries, as the already devastating impacts of the virus in the global North are certain to be amplified in countries with weaker health systems and fraying social safety nets.

All over the world, informal labourers, migrants and refugees, care workers, sick and vulnerable people without access to health care, people living in informal settlements or without housing, children cut off from education and school meals, women confined to unsafe domestic conditions, small and micro-entrepreneurs, and laid-off employees are struggling not just to stay safe, but to cover their most basic needs. This is not just a result of this unprecedented health pandemic; it is a product of a pre-existing political economy more focused on extracting maximum value from economic processes rather than investing in strengthening systems for the future. This bodes ill for equality, social justice and the natural environment in the best of times, but becomes disastrous during shocks and crises. And despite the fact that some—mostly richer—countries have launched historically unseen fiscal stimulus and social protection packages and invested ad hoc in health infrastructure and protection measures, without long-term future-looking structural change and systems building, these deeper layers of injustice and inequality will remain, and our global system will continue to be vulnerable to such shocks, be they economic, environmental, conflict-driven, health-related, or otherwise.

This moment of reckoning demands of us reflection, and action. Action certainly in our own communities, right now, but also on national and global scales when the immediate threat fades. How then can we (re-)build our social, political and economic systems to bring about lasting transformative change, that will not only leave us better prepared for future crisis events, but also bring us closer to a vision of social justice, equality and sustainability, such as that laid out by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? UNRISD’s substantial body of work provides important lessons to be drawn on as we seek to re-assess and recover.


Now more urgent than ever: Universalizing social policies

The type of capitalism that we have allowed to take root in the past four decades has produced marked injustice in relation to the distribution of economic value—across countries, within societies, and intergenerationally. Rewards from private sector activity have trickled upwards to those who own or allocate capital, and away from workers who face increasingly precarious forms of employment. This injustice is multiplied between countries. Many states in the global South have low human, infrastructural and financial capacities in their public bodies and services, which are exacerbated by a decade of austerity and recovery from the global economic and financial crisis of 2008, as well as illicit financial flows and tax avoidance. The impacts of the novel coronavirus have laid bare structural weaknesses in essential organizations and services, and the systemic deficiencies in how we govern economic behaviour at all levels.


Social policy has a key role to play in addressing immediate crisis effects and building a more sustainable and equitable system for the future. Countries with better social services—in particular universal health systems; care services that guarantee quality care, and decent work for care workers; and systems of social protection that cover critical health expenditures as well as loss of income due to sickness, unemployment or businesses closing down—are better able to maintain basic living standards and alleviate household decisions with detrimental effects for future well-being (such as distress sale of assets). If, in the past, governments and donors have not prioritized building and securing these systems, now is the call to wake up and think about future strategies for creating universal social services for all, including affordable access to energy, water and transport.


No resilience without a just transition

Societies are already struggling to adapt to the shifting tectonic plates of global warming, demographic change, and the pace of technological development. The Covid-19 crisis has revealed how they are similarly unprepared and lack resilience when faced with large and more sudden shocks, whether they relate to conflict and displacement, new disease vectors, or climate disruptions and extreme weather events. In these increasingly uncertain times it is essential that states proactively pursue resilience strategies, ranging from creating funds to be used in the next crisis, to investing in preparedness and response systems that can minimize the impact before it gets out of hand. Such strategies can begin with adapting and broadening existing social protection mechanisms, with a view to making more inclusive and sustainable systems in the future.


In this vein, it is imperative that responses to reduce the economic fallout of this crisis do not accelerate the climate crisis, lest we push the globe further towards the brink of environmental collapse. On the contrary, putting sustainable development at the front and centre of policy agendas, investing in decarbonization and ensuring a just transition alongside broader environmental protection, will go a long way to stave off potential future environmental disasters and may even contribute to preventing further health crises. Public support given to (large) corporations should be conditional on verifiable improvement in their sustainable development performance in ways that have positive impacts for workers, the environment and the real economy.


Renewing commitments to international solidarity and multilateralism

Globalization has woven countries together and reinforced their interdependence. But as the centre of economic and political gravity has shifted in the world, some countries have responded with nationalist behaviours, disrupting cooperation on trade, migration and actions necessary to safeguard the planet. This has made societies weaker not stronger, restricting their ability to respond to new and old challenges for the benefit of all, at a time when countries with fewer resources and less capacity urgently need solidarity and support. It will be important that the current pandemic does not amplify inward-looking protectionist policies, or lead to discriminatory restrictions on mobility based on citizenship status. Covid-19 is showing us in the harshest possible light that in an interlinked world, no one is protected until all are protected.


Nations have signaled their commitment to multilateralism by passing a UN General Assembly resolution on Covid-19 that calls for global solidarity and enhanced cooperation, and reaffirms commitment both to helping people and societies in special situations, as well as maintaining the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development. Civil society and all political forces will have an essential role to play in holding governments to account on their commitment to invest in common solutions, not just for this pandemic but for all of the global challenges we face.


Making sense of the crisis: A time for research and action

Despite the fear and uncertainty, there are bright spots to be seen: the selfless dedication of health and care workers to save lives, the tireless commitment of those providing essential services to keep our world turning, global solidarity movements, and the creative solutions that are emerging locally in response to the crisis. In the best-case scenario, these powerful displays of solidarity will give way to real mobilization for lasting, transformative change, once there are no longer metres mandated between us. No doubt the financial losses caused by this crisis will further exacerbate inequalities, the concentration of wealth, economic and social precarity for the majority of people, and fiscal pressures on governments. It is therefore all the more essential to rethink policy priorities, fundamental societal values, and strategic development directions for the coming decade of action. Strong, solidarity-based alliances between people, collective action and unwavering pressure will be essential to achieve such a vision of social justice, equality and sustainability.


Research and scientific evidence also have a critical role to play in steering us through the crisis, guiding decision makers in uncertain times, and helping build better systems for the future. This blog series seeks to shed light and encourage critical debate on the social development implications of, and solutions to, the Covid-19 crisis. Applying a social and political economy lens, and amplifying voices from the global South, we will explore the uneven distribution of impacts of both the crisis and crisis response, as well as the social, political and economic drivers of these disparities. Upcoming posts will cover a range of topics, such as inequalities, gender and environmental dimensions of the crisis and responses; power, policies, institutions, bargaining and contestation processes shaping responses; safeguarding human rights and protecting vulnerable groups; and policy space, the role of the state and global governance systems.

Photo: Adapted from Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.