Current Affairs

Build Back Better for Whom? How Neoliberalism (Re)creates Disaster Risks

There’s a lot more to Biden’s campaign slogan than meets the eye.

“Better?” I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better? “Better never means better for everyone,” he says. “It always means worse, for some.”Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

On November 23, 2020 a ripple went across social media—Joe Biden’s transition website was now registered as “buildbackbetter.gov.” For most people the news here was that the website had received a .gov web address, signifying the official move of the Biden team from contesting an election to wielding power. For people who study disasters though, the news was another chapter in this odd detour of the concept “Build Back Better.”

Build Back Better, a phrase familiar to disaster researchers, international development experts, and others of the lanyard set who tend to see disasters as  “natural events,” has suddenly, strangely, penetrated into the year 2021 as a political slogan. For many who have been operating under the standards of Build Back Better—or those of us who have been actively seeking to critique it—the reaction to this odd parallel life has ranged from enraged and perplexed to dismissive and indifferent. However, for those of us who understand  disasters as part of a socio-political process, this new domain for the slogan was not totally surprising. The origins of Build Back Better are easy enough to pin down—it was found floating around the international development/post-disaster reconstruction world by Bill Clinton following the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then Build Back Better has become a set of best practices for international frameworks for post-disaster recovery.

While the origins of Build Back Better as a concept are simple to outline, the baggage it carries and its relevance to our current moment may not be clear to people who have not grappled with the concept in the context of disasters for the past decade. 

At the close of World War II, a new order of governments and government-backed international agencies latched onto international development as a tool to even out the inequalities of a global capitalist economy. Both international development and post-disaster reconstruction would develop in an intertwined relationship. The elite actors steering the world economy shared a fundamental belief that prosperity, as brought about by development, would become the stabilizing factor in the post-war world. To this end, trade, globalization, and urbanization were seen as drivers of stability. In the developed yet damaged world, this prosperity was to be revived. In the developing world, this dynamic was brought about through policy and restructuring influences, often imposed by the developed countries. 

The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference was convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July of 1944. It brought together the 44 member nations of the Allied Powers in an effort to prevent a widespread international economic disaster resulting from the destruction and disruption caused by World War II. The participants in what is now informally referred to as Bretton Woods understood that fascism and the destabilization of Europe that had led to the war was in part the result of an ineffective, if not poorly considered, international approach to the aftermath of World War I. The Bretton Woods strategy gave birth to both the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was designed to stabilize global financial markets, and the World Bank, which would engage in reconstruction and development.

One of the roles of the capitalist state is to mediate unrest. A disaster is the possibility for unrest— not in terms of panic or riots, but in the creation of spontaneous alternatives to the present formation. At the end of World War II, the Allies worked to confront the mass destruction of the physical environment and the radical political changes that were necessitated by a mass military confrontation. For example, the reconstruction of Japan led not just to new urban forms for cities across the country, but to a new constitution as well. Likewise, the reconstruction of Germany involved the construction of buildings, as well as the early infrastructure of the Cold War. The moment called for radical action. However, this radical action could not be allowed to disrupt the dominance of capital. As these powerful actors considered the fate of the future world, they sought to maintain their own stability.  

Building Back, Neoliberal-Style

Institutions formed to repair a world scarred by war—namely the IMF and the World Bank—would find other crises to apply themselves to. These institutions were created in line with the ideology of international development, but this ideology was not static. Over the decades this globalized effort to move beyond the destruction of World War II transformed into a new formation of ideology, policies, and laws known as neoliberalism. During the 1960s embedded liberalism suffered multiple breakdowns in individual countries, spreading outward to the international economy. This crisis of capitalism reached a breaking point with the stagflation of the 1970s. Both Thatcherism and Reaganism came to power, in the U.K. and the United States respectively, offering austerity, privatization, and a deconstruction of the social safety net as solutions to this crisis. As neoliberalism became the pervading ideology and policy set of the Global North in the 1970s, it would also establish itself as the predominant driver of international development and post-disaster reconstruction.

The United Nations defines Building Back Better as, “The use of the recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction phases after a disaster to increase the resilience of nations and communities through integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructure and societal systems, and into the revitalization of livelihoods, economies, and the environment.” Since its formal introduction to disaster risk reduction (DRR) by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, “Build Back Better” has been adopted by various INGOs, including the IFRC, the Asian Development Bank, and many others—and has stayed largely within the DRR domain until very recently. During the COVID-19 pandemic it has become a slogan for economic recovery: the OECD used Build Back Better to outline the post-pandemic plans for a more resilient and sustainable economy; the European Commission used the slogan in May when announcing their €750 billion stimulus fund. 

Build Back Better also became a cliché on many policymakers’ lips. On  June 30, 2020, the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to undertake “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War” as this will help to “build back better, build back greener, build back faster” in order to boost spending on infrastructure as a way for “levelling up the country” and avoiding economic recession.  It was also used by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and became a centerpiece for American President-elect Biden’s campaign (and now presidential transition). The emphasis of BBB is on continuity–i.e., to keep on going no matter what. The goal is not to alleviate the original conditions that created a crisis, but rather to quickly move past the crisis without altering the underlying political, economic, and societal structures. This emphasizes the core of neoliberalism: not as a mode of economic management, but as a mode of political rationality and government reasoning that constructs and regulates the realm within which a disaster—and then the reconstruction—occur .The contradiction here is that a disaster exposes, and is grounded in, the underlying inequalities in society while neoliberal capitalism relies on the maintenance of those same inequalities. 

In a disaster, people can lose their livelihoods, shelter, family, sense of dignity, and the physical infrastructure that makes their daily lives possible. What we should always keep in mind, however, is that disasters do not affect everyone equally. Those who are most marginalized in our day-to-day existence are those who are most harmed by disasters. For African Americans forced by geographic segregation to live in flood-prone low-lying areas, or Sri Lankan fishing communities eking out a subsistence living in wooden shanties in the shadows of international resorts, a disaster is not a new, sudden, or unexpected danger. It is a continuation of everyday harm inflicted on those relegated to the margins of society. Disasters don’t simply bring about suffering—they expose it. For those who have no voice in decision-making, no claim to an official place to live, a livelihood tied to meager natural resources or a degraded environment, trauma, suffering, and displacement are not unique to a disaster event. 

Yet, disasters offer an opportunity—often at a large scale— to improve the material conditions of everyday life for masses of people. This is not only in terms of higher standards of safety and construction, but also in the possibility to address the root causes of disasters—i.e., inequality and injustice rooted in our socio-political structures. Disasters can be a chance to make things better. For example, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 led to a strengthening of building codes across Japan, which saved many lives during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. However, in the context of neoliberalism, the “better” in the slogan Build Back Better does not always mean good for all, meaning that the benefits are not always (and in fact, are rarely) fairly distributed. In order to find the answers that can truly lead to disaster risk reduction instead of disaster risk (re)creation and the re-establishment of the status quo, we need to first consider the following questions:  Who decides what is better? Better for whom? What do we need to do better?

Characterized as a way for people and societies to become “more resilient,” Build Back Better epitomizes the problematic ideology of resilience. Disasters are often portrayed as unexpected external shocks and are frequently naturalized and framed as inevitable, meaning that their root causes cannot be altered, and thus it is we who must adapt. Resilience and its ability to resolve all contemporary issues has become a useful neoliberal narrative to explain anything from how individuals should act and cope with hazards, risks and disasters, to a mainstreamed approach to development. Portrayed as something “good,” resilience has become an important goal that needs to be achieved no matter what. Under neoliberal conditions, resilience therefore can be interpreted as the ability to survive under the conditions of destitution. Such resilience is profitable because “resilient” people can—as sociologist Sarah Bracke notes in her 2016 essay “Bouncing back: vulnerability and resistance in times of resilience”—“absorb the impact of austerity measures and continue to be productive.” As such, the resilience message essentially tells the most oppressed that they should keep taking knock after knock and get better at coping.

In a post-disaster setting, the calls for resilience highlight the idea of “self-reliance,” dismantling the redistributive functions of the state instead of providing for the emancipatory social change that is needed in a post-disaster reconstruction if it is to truly reduce disaster risks. Resilience fetishizes the status quo of our social system, to which only few want to go back. The discourse of resilience is highly compatible with the neoliberal ideological frames that, just like resilience, are malleable, nebulous, multifaceted, and replete with contradictions. In fact, resilience has only become popular because it fits so well with the neoliberal discourse. 

“Better” for Whom?

In his propositions for Build Back Better, Clinton stated that “disasters and the response to them can exacerbate existing patterns of vulnerability and discrimination within societies” and that “it is incumbent upon governments, donors, and assistance providers to ensure that relief and recovery efforts do not exacerbate historic patterns of vulnerability, discrimination, and disadvantage.” But is this possible in a society based on neoliberal values that do not coexist well with the values of equality? Here, a famous phrase that states neoliberalism is socialism for few and hardcore capitalism for many comes to mind.  

Treated as apolitical, Build Back Better is enclaved as a non-political matter, whereas in reality it relies on markets and re-establishes the existing status quo, given that governments need to lead the way. This process re-inserts, or introduces, neoliberal capitalism rather than seeking any alternative. It is also a process of re-establishing “normality,” in which “normal” refers to the hegemonic social structures by which certain subjects are rendered “normal” and “natural” by contrasting them with other subjects deemed “perverse” and “pathological.”

Build Back Better has been proposed as a technocratic managerial solution to a crisis. However, such a solution does not stop the spread of precarity. Moreover, given that a crisis is often rooted in extraction, weak governance, or profiteering, one triggering crisis should not be the narrow starting point for a Build Back Better strategy. The concept of Build Back Better needs to focus on eliminating processes that created risk in the first place instead of reconstructing these processes. 

The ideal of Build Back Better is commendable, but as it is founded on a Western neoliberal tradition, the slogan seems to be missing a somewhat important part: “building back better for a chosen few.” In its current implementation, Build Back Better and its calls for rebuilding the economy, infrastructure, and revitalization of human resources, keeps the subaltern invisible. It allows elite actors to define what is and what isn’t a risk, who is and isn’t responsible for them, and what forms of action are to be taken in response to these risks. It shows a capacity to accommodate (i.e., make “better”)—but not actively change—social and political systems that create risk in the first place.

People affected by disasters are offered a choice: be left to suffer through a disaster with little to no organized international assistance, or to be integrated into globalized neoliberal development that would oppress them further. Of course, this is not a choice but a hostage situation—decades of manufactured inequality with the only avenue of escape being through a disaster recovery managed by the same elite technocrats who brought them inequality in the first place. This is the same dilemma facing Americans under the Biden transition—accept the capable technocrats of the existing order or be branded as a fan of the chaos of the Trump administration. 

Recent Biden cabinet appointments have trended in this direction: Tony Blinken as Secretary of State, Janet Yellen as Secretary of the Treasury, and John Kerry as special climate envoy are defended as experienced steady hands who will make sure that the gears grind effectively. This, of course, avoids the question of what is being ground in the gears and whether or not we need these gears to turn at all. This dynamic is all too familiar to anyone who studies post-disaster recovery. The only alternative given to being absorbed by the blob of consultants, technocrats, and international agencies is turmoil and squalor. But this shouldn’t be the case. 

If we believe that another world is possible, then we do not have to accept the false binary choice of lesser evils. Disaster recovery—political or otherwise—presents us with the opportunity for revolutionary change. But it is an uphill battle. 

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