Build Back Better Guiding Principles
Originating in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, ‘Build Back Better’ has been a United Nations guiding principle of physical disaster risk reduction since 2015. During the pandemic, it has become the campaigning slogan for a vast coalition of business groups, trade unions, faith leaders, NGOs, activists, academics and civil society who see in a crisis of this scale – the first since 1918 to affect us all globally - the opportunity to not go back to life as it was. Instead, they encourage their audiences to take stock, re-think, re-order and set a new course to produce real change. In the UK, to name but a few, the following have all launched Build Back Better Campaigns: Green New Deal UK (whose steering group include Greenpeace, Public and Commercial Services Union, Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation); We Mean Business Coalition of leading companies committed to bold climate action; the Environmental Justice Commission – a cross-party coalition, (IPPR, 2020); the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats; teams of internationally recognised academic experts, such as Cameron Hepburn, Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Lord Nicholas Stern and regional bodies such as the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership.
Although Covid-19 is not a physical disaster, change makers use the Build Back Better term to emphasise recovery and reconstruction. The need to make investment now in order to increase resilience and reduce the cost of future disasters. They encourage their audience to look, as early as they can, beyond the rescue phase of the crisis and to the recovery, and then, further than that, to a re-imagining of what life will look like afterwards. Previous crises have taught us that decisions taken during this stage of a crisis are critical to laying foundations for a better society afterwards (Knight, 2020). Behavioural interventions have historically been more effective during times of transitions (Geels, 2002; Reeves et al, 2020 quoted in Hepburn et al, 2020) And that “the earlier we begin building for what comes next, the better our chances of delivering a strong and successful recovery” (Invest in Manchester, 7 May 2020.)
A Progressive Direction
Progressives are aware that our responses to the previous crises of 1999 and 2008 were largely framed by what we opposed – no to austerity, to bailouts, to globalisation (Hartnell, 2020.) And while the ‘Yeses’ were well-articulated, there was an insufficiently clear message or global vision. This time Build Back Better platforms are calling for a ‘progressive infrastructure of ideas’ including ‘game-changing infrastructures’ (Barwick, 2020) to provide a much stronger, greener and fairer society that includes more funding for the NHS and social care, tackling inequality, creating good jobs, particularly for young people, tackling the climate and environmental emergency already upon us (Compass, 2020) and reducing the risk of future pandemics (Proctor, 2020). Building on pre-pandemic calls for a global Green New Deal, they are rallying policy actors - whether they be local coalitions or national governments, to seize a generational opportunity to apply ‘a climate and resilience lens to longer-term economic stimulus’, introducing climate criteria into green economic recovery packages, not only because they are better for the environment but because they will deliver better results for economies too (Hepburn et al, 2020).
New economic metrics are central to the Build Back Better agenda. They “jettison the idea of constant economic growth” (Transition Town, Lewes, 2020) and instead focus on simultaneously fighting climate change and poverty. The limits of GDP have been apparent for a long time: it ignores distributional concerns and only weakly correlates with well-being – whether that be of our environment or individuals (IPPR, 2020.) The UK’s Environmental Justice Commission is similarly arguing for a ‘whole economy approach’ with 3 guiding principles: addressing climate change, improving lives and transforming the economy. In other words, well-designed recovery systems can cover several dimensions at once – that means more than economics and livelihoods, it means investment, and behavioural change.
With more people experiencing the benefits of a better work-life balance, more exercise, cleaner air, and giving priority to care and caring, ideas judged as radical by the centre ground have entered the mainstream debate such as basic income (Standing, 2017) and 4 day working weeks (Stronge and Harper, 2019). Post-crisis recovery spending offers an opportunity, for example, to embed climate-positive behaviours by supporting teleworking, high-speed broadband connectivity and residential energy efficiency (Hepburn et al, 2020).
Where Do We Begin?
Progressives have much to build on. Neoliberalism had made “collective action suspect” (Hartnell, 2020) but the pandemic has brought to the centre stage that our well-being, the economy and individual nations of the world are interconnected. The rapid spread of Coronavirus has exposed a lack of international solidarity (Twelves, 2020) and led to calls for an ‘unprecedented level of global cooperation’ (Kokudu and Sugiyama, 2020.)
The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability and social injustice of an economy in which those with the lowest pay and worst conditions are the same people who have a vital role in keeping all our lives going. That, in turn, has brought to the top of the political agenda the need for fairer changes – to pay essential workers better and create better job security. It has questioned the extent we have overvalued people at the top and undervalue those at the bottom. In exposing the vulnerability of our public service, the crisis has also questioned the hammer blow delivered by austerity to public services and flagged that any return to that programme would put front line services at high risk. Instead, Build Back Better campaigners call for the need to protect and invest in the public sector, making it – and by extension, us all - more robust and resilient, not least for future pandemics.
Build Back Better, at its core, is about rebuilding collective action, with more imaginative use of technology a vital part of that: “brainstorm new, imaginative and progressive ways of living and organising society” (Twelves, 2020.) We know there are powerful obstacles. Power profits from disasters. While the public are focused on surviving and recovering, their governments are able to push through deals and legislation which further erode collective rights (privatisation of the NHS is one such example.) Fundamental to building back better is transforming both our democratic structures, and our relationship with them, to ensure that those most affected by change have the opportunity to participate, have the power to lead and shape the building back in a way that combines social, economic and climate justice. (Lucas, 2020).
A starting point for this transformation is to recognise that “we have all been part of a collective effort to adapt and protect one another” during this crisis. Now is the time to build on that and move away from being consumers where “the right thing to do was to look out for ourselves, to choose the best deal from those that were offered, to produce whatever people would consume, because if we did, the best society would result”, to move on from being subjects in top-down state capitalism and to become citizens. The citizen story is one in which government equips and enables us, to share as much information and power as possible, so that we can “work together where we live to find a new and sustainable normal.” (Alexander, 2020.) However, it will require “extreme collaboration” (Compass, 2020.) This aspect of the build back better agenda is about transforming ourselves.
Alexander, J. (2020) Johnson’s message is very deliberate and very dangerous: here’s how to combat it. Available at [accessed 4 May 2020] https://medium.com/@jonjalex/johnsons-message-is-very-deliberate-and-very-dangerous-here-s-how-to-combat-it-d336cae96348
Alexander, J. (2020) Subject, Consumer, or Citizen: Three Post-Covid Futures. New Citizenship Project. Available at [accessed 17 April 2020]: https://medium.com/new-citizenship-project/subject-consumer-or-citizen-three-post-covid-futures-8c3cc469a984
Barwick, S. (2020) The Build Back Better campaign aims to shape COVID-19 recovery policy, The MJ. Available at [accessed 28 April 2020] https://www.themj.co.uk/The-Build-Back-Better-campaign-aims-to-shape-COVID-19-recovery-policy/217417#
Dr Mitchell is a social researcher, writer and political activist based in London.