When we wrote our article Whose Recovery?: IFI Prescriptions for Postwar States, the “recovery” we had in mind was recovery from war, not recovery from a pandemic. Yet now, after 18 months of Covid-19, the extent to which our arguments apply to the need to recover from the global Covid crisis is striking.
Similar to many wars, the pandemic has created tremendous economic hardship for innumerable individuals and families, especially in the most socio-economically marginalized groups. At the same time, it has had shattering effects on many countries’ economies, especially those already burdened by the distortions of colonial development models, vast amounts of odious debt, and imposed-austerity policies that cut public services and social protection. And those countries, similar to countries emerging from armed conflict, now face tremendous pressures to launch intensive economic recovery programs.
In our article, we argued that “economic recovery” is an enormously problematic term, and we teased out the ways that economic recovery after war could be taken to mean two very different things. Typically, when states and multilateral organisations such as IFIs use the term postwar “economic recovery,” what they are referring to is the recovery of the economic system, as measured by growth of GDP. However, if you instead approach the idea of economic recovery by asking “what do people need to recover from war?” and “what are the economic dimensions of meeting those needs?” postwar “economic recovery” looks like something very different indeed.
“Economic recovery” functions as an abstraction that serves to disguise the ways that recovery of the economic system not only fails to respond to the real needs of actual people, but actively undermines them. Policies focused on recovery of the economic system are based on false assumptions that wealth created will “trickle down”, that a “rising tide will lift all boats,” that an increasing GDP translates into a healthy and happy population, and other neoliberal myths.
Our article explored one of the central planks of an economic recovery strategy that focusses on recovery of the economic system: the extraction of natural resources for export. It demonstrated the ways in which, in many postwar countries, a focus on the extraction and export of natural resources, such as timber, agrofuels and high-value minerals, is not only not designed to meet postwar needs of social and physical repair or to improve the physical and economic security for the nation’s citizens; it actively undermines them. It undermines them by dispossessing people of their land, destroying subsistence livelihoods, eroding food security, poisoning and polluting local ecosystems, and driving the fatal insecurity of land defenders. And in so doing, extractivism exacerbates the inequalities, marginalizations and exclusions that contribute to war in the first place, and drives the degradation and destruction of the land and water on which all life depends.
As we argue in our article, it is the gendered assumptions embedded in neoclassical economics that are central to explaining how IFI postwar economic recovery policy can be so distant from and antithetical to real, society-wide recovery from war. The series of exclusions in neoclassical economics’ conception of what counts as economic activity, and of what should be included in its accountings of how to maximize efficiency and GDP growth, include caring labour, reproductive labour, subsistence labour and other labour outside the formal market economy, as well as the work done by and value of ecosystems. These are all, somehow, simultaneously devalued, assumed nevertheless to always be there, and ignored.
As a result, economic institutions can push postwar states to structure their economies to favour extractive corporations, through a low corporate tax rate, for example, without ever noticing the increased burdens that puts on women (who find reproductive, caring and subsistence labour defaults to them when the state does not provide) and without counting those burdens as economic harms to the women or the economic system itself. Likewise, they can ignore costs of the environmental degradation, toxic pollution and climate disruption that result from the large-scale extraction of natural resources. Corporations are not required to pay these costs, which lie outside neoclassical accounting of efficiency and measures such as GDP; they are “externalities.” And, since there is no accounting of the caring, subsistence and provisioning labour done by women and poor people, the fact that these environmental costs make their work so much more burdensome in the present and far into the future is unremarked, and certainly not guarded against. The effect is to deepen gender and other intersectional inequalities, thus immiserating large swathes of the population and attenuating the prospects for sustainable peace. In our article, these impacts are demonstrated in three postwar contexts on three different continents: gold and nickel mining in Guatemala; agro-business in Liberia and copper mining in Bougainville.
Alarmingly, the Covid pandemic is now leading to an intensification of extractivism. Covid-crippled economies are under the same kinds of financial pressures as postwar states, and the pathway to “economic recovery” that is most available and supported within the context of global capitalist institutions is the exploitation, extraction and export of natural resources. That is, it is extraction for the sake of the recovery of the economic system, not the recovery of people, their livelihoods, and the ecosystems on which their health and livelihoods depend. Even as the IPCC sounds a code red for humanity, and even as there is increasing recognition of the need for a transformation of the economic system, too many within states and multilateral institutions remain wedded to the belief that their focus must be to “restart our economies” in exactly the same extractivist mold.
Post-pandemic, as in postwar, this flawed focus can be explained by a range of factors. There is the perceived urgency that can lead to bad decisions, and, of course, there are vested interests in an extractivist capitalist system that want to see a return to their profits, whatever the costs. Extractivist capitalism is also explained, we would argue, by gendered ideas about man’s relationship to nature. The western, male-dominated philosophical and religious traditions that are part of the capitalist worldview, view nature as a resource, as separate from us, failing to see that nature looks after us, that we are part of nature, that nature has agency, that humankind is just one species among others on this planet, that our fundamental relationship to the more-than-human world is complex interdependence and reciprocity.
As true of the pandemic as it is of war, we need to leave behind the approach that defines “economic recovery” as recovery of the economic system. Rather than rely on the extraction and export of resources in order to fuel recovery of an economic system that rewards only a few, we need to focus on real recovery. What would that mean? There is no shortage of feminist voices spelling out the shifts to our economic system would require. For starters, there is replacing the goal of growth with the goal of human and planetary well-being and a measure that captures that goal. Following that, there is the obvious step of valuing and rewarding carers, and massively investing in care infrastructure. Given that these are jobs of enormous value to society, desperately needed, rewarding to fulfil (if well-resourced) and which do not contribute to the destruction of the planet, this would be a strategy of obvious benefit in postwar and post-pandemic contexts.
Many have commented on the opportunities the pandemic provided, for all its horror, for humanity to pause, reset and build forward better—even though there are many powerful forces whose every intention and act is aimed at building back within the economic model that brought us to the catastrophic present. But just as the pandemic opened spaces for contesting that model, we should see those same kinds of spaces in postwar contexts. Although postwar countries face massive challenges, the postwar moment also offers “windows of opportunity.” While postwar needs for remedy, repair and transformation are great, the period immediately following a war’s political settlement is also a moment of great potential: large amounts of external support flow in; constitutions are drafted, infrastructure is (re)built; economic plans are drawn up; and the social, political and economic arrangements that will structure the postwar society are being set. Our article, and our broader research project, draws on some of the central ideas of feminist economic and ecological thought to inform how these opportunities can be seized in order to facilitate real recovery, the recovery of people’s lives and the natural world upon which they depend, and to build peace that is sustainable for both people and planet. In the wake of the pandemic, its relevance is wider than ever; in the face of the climate emergency, the urgency could not be greater.