Building Back Better: Equality at the Centre

Alicia Bárcena, Guy Ryder adn Tatiana Valovaya | The pandemic is hitting disproportionately women and the most vulnerable population groups, especially the poorest, many of whom work in the informal economy.

By Alicia Bárcena, Guy Ryder adn Tatiana Valovaya*

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a socio-economic crisis of an unprecedented scope and reach. Worldwide, it has led to a massive decline of working hours, equivalent to 400 million full-time jobs. It has also exposed structural inequalities related to social protection and in the labour market, particularly those based on gender, age, and race.

The pandemic is hitting disproportionately women and the most vulnerable population groups, especially the poorest, many of whom work in the informal economy. They often live in overcrowded conditions that lack access to water and sanitation. They are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions that increase the risk of contagion and fatalities.

This crisis starkly demonstrates the relevance of changing the development paradigm in line with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, particularly those relating to inequality. It is urgent to build back better with equality and environmental sustainability. A full global reset with political leadership to agree on a social compact between the public and private sectors and society to reach universal social protection and create more resilient societies that are equipped to weather social, economic, and environmental shocks is needed.

"What we decide now will be key for the next decades."

In June, we convened a high-level virtual panel[1] to draw attention to the plight of the world’s 1.6 billion informal workers during this pandemic. During the session, we highlighted the urgency of taking social protection and public employment measures to help informal workers cope with the devastating effects of this crisis and to support SMEs and avoid the destruction of productive capabilities.

We shared examples of concrete measures taken by countries to mitigate short-term vulnerabilities in the midst of the crisis, mostly via cash transfers, along with mid-term approaches, such as public employment programs [2], that will protect productive structures and provide job opportunities to workers and their communities in the aftermath of the pandemics.

For example, in South Africa, the Community Works Programme was quickly upscaled to create additional job opportunities, allowing for a quick response to the pandemic: 10,000 community-based health workers were hired to test, trace, screen, and monitor the spread of COVID-19. Jordan and Portugal are supporting refugees, migrant workers, and others engaged in the informal economy, including through access to financial services and work permits, income support and job retention initiatives, health services, as well as longer-term measures to support a transition out of the informal economy. In Latin American and Caribbean countries, the main social protection measures implemented have been cash and in-kind transfers to compensate for the dwindling incomes of informal workers and other vulnerable population groups; these measures so far have amounted to some US$ 69 billion, about 1.4% of the region’s GDP.

"Business as usual is not an option."

The ultimate test for the success of policy responses will be how quickly and effectively we protect informal and formal workers, as well as SMEs, particularly those that include women, youth and migrants. Our responses must aim to counteract immediate employment and income losses, while facilitating employment-intensive recovery combined with an energy transition. We have no time to lose for such crucial efforts.
While some parts of the world are still in the midst of the health crisis, we must look ahead to ensure that we build back better, which means putting equality and environmental sustainability at the centre of the recovery phase. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of globalization and of the unsustainable and unequal development and economic models on which it is based. It has also highlighted the structural gaps of the economies of the regions that are now at the centre of the pandemic, such as Latin America and the Caribbean. Business as usual is not an option.
Job creation is central to an effective response to this pandemic and opportunities to build back better exist. In sectors such as renewable energy and green works[3], new forms of transportation and mobility, local investments in basic infrastructure, as well as for shelter and healthcare, are examples. It is estimated that US$ 20 trillion are needed globally in public investment over the next two decades. The income security and job opportunities created through investments in the economic, social and environmental recovery post-COVID will be the basis for a human-centered approach to ensuring social justice.
Decent jobs, robust health systems, and universal social protection - the main building blocks of the infrastructure of life - should be at the center.
Agenda 2030 is our common route and our most powerful way to building back better.

[1][2] There are several PEPs around the world, the Ethiopian Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), Indian Mahatma National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the South African Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) and many others.[3] Green works refer to strategies to create decent employment in infrastructure and related sectors (such as agriculture and environment) to build infrastructure and community assets that have direct environmental benefits or are in response to a specific climate change hazard.

*Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)
Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization (ILO)
Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General, United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG)