The “build back better” narrative is popular in debate on the COVID-19 recovery, but it has limitations, and there are lessons to learn from recent recoveries from major disasters. The disaster risk reduction (DRR) community should play a strong role in recovery efforts, and, as DRR moves towards a more holistic perspective on risk, the timing is right to do so: one only needs to look at Cyclone Amphan hitting India and Bangladesh during the pandemic to see the complex and systemic nature of risk.

Build back better for whom?

As the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and countermeasures deepen with each passing day, there are growing calls for nations to build back better in their recoveries. Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the 76th Session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, with a call to “build back better on the foundations of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

Such calls (e.g. to preserve biodiversity, accelerate climate action, prioritize education, and make development aid risk-informed) speak to the notion that recovering from a crisis offers a window of opportunity to be exploited to advance wider (or altogether different) agendas and priorities.

Man walking near grounded ship post storm surge. Photo: Michael Hall / Getty Images.

This is nothing new for disaster experts: we’ve heard calls to build back better time and time again. Although probably coined earlier, it most famously became the tagline for the massive recovery effort that followed the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Bill Clinton, in his role as UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, even set out ten propositions for building back better.

Build back better has become a powerful narrative used by governments and international agencies to embody disaster recovery ambitions of all shapes and sizes, from rebuilding homes to protecting the environment. The UN has formally defined it, and it is one of four priority areas in the global agreement on disasters – the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Despite its popularity and apparent common-sense message, build back better has come in for some criticism and drawn many important questions: who benefits from the narrative? Who decides what it means and what the recovery priorities are? Is it governments, international agencies and donors, or is it affected people and communities?

Research has demonstrated the power of narratives in shaping decisions and actions. Build back better is an attractive narrative because it means different things to different actors – the word “better” can fit any perspective or agenda. As a principle, therefore, it doesn’t evenly translate into recovery action. And as already implied, it is also a somewhat top-down approach, which has the potential to conflict with local wishes or grassroots action. Some have gone further, suggesting the narrative has been deployed to promote vested, capitalist interests, which are less likely to be challenged by disaster-affected people than under normal circumstances.

These issues present problems for COVID-19 recoveries striving to build back better. While a pandemic recovery has differences from other disasters (for instance, there are no homes to rebuild) there are enough similarities, such as the need to restore and rehabilitate livelihoods and social networks, to warrant considering lessons learned from DRR action. Whether the risk is a flood or a pandemic, we need to better understand and address the root causes of risk – such as poverty, inequality, unsustainable development – when building back better.

Facing a super cyclone in the midst of a pandemic

The systemic nature of risk is brought to light by the recent tragedy in India and Bangladesh, where relief efforts for Cyclone Amphan are also dealing with the pandemic spread. Examples from the provinces of West Bengal and Orissa in the cyclone-prone eastern coast of the Indian sub-continent highlight the interdependence and cascading effects of complex risks across systems.

According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement, between 2008 and 2019 India recorded the highest number of internally displaced people due to repeated encounters with natural disasters, such as tropical cyclones and monsoons. The loss and damage caused by Amphan on 20th May 2020 could have been lessened if not for Cyclone Bulbul, which hit the coast last November and destroyed large swathes of the mangrove forest ecosystem, which can offer protection against storm surges.

The country is now also one of the hotspots of the pandemic, with a total of nearly 180 000 cases, as on the 1 June. In a move to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a nationwide lockdown was announced on the 24 March with immediate effect. Migrant workers who make up the bulk of the urban informal workforce were not prepared for surviving the lockdown in cities, because of job losses and delayed wages arising from precarious work contracts, high rents and a lack of social safety nets. Many were forced to walk hundreds of miles to their original homes (some to the cyclone-hit regions in the east) with no food or water.

In light of this tragedy, it is imperative to note that large-scale, caste-based internal migration from the eastern parts of India to the west stems from uneven historical patterns of development and agrarian distress. Official records have noted that since the 1980s a high number of males migrate from coastal areas during and after disasters in search of livelihoods, and the lockdown will present a challenge to the usual adaptation strategies.

Some of the districts worst hit by the cyclone in West Bengal had also been listed as “red zones” because of a high rate of increase in COVID-19 cases. Addressing the risk of COVID-19 spread, the migrant crisis and Amphan relief efforts at the same time will mean that disaster authorities will have to quickly assess trade-offs between multiple risks and priorities. For instance, migrant returning to Orissa are now exempted from institutional quarantine in cyclone evacuation shelters, in order to make space for cyclone victims. Elsewhere, evacuees made homeless by the cyclone are at increased risk of infection as they are forced to share cramped shelter spaces.

Meanwhile, those migrant workers who are stranded in cities remain at high risk of chronic poverty, as their families await their remittance to rebuild homes. Small enterprises and unorganized workers who were recovering from the economic impact of the lockdown doubt their ability to restore their livelihoods after Amphan. As slums collapse in Kolkata and nearly 100 000 ha of farmland are destroyed in Orissa, economic risks resulting from these two disasters will exacerbate food insecurity and overstretch healthcare capacity in the region.

As one of the most cyclone-hit areas, Orissa and states like it have made great strides in building preparedness and strengthening their disaster management strategies and infrastructure. In the upcoming days, we will need to listen to these disaster management authorities, local communities and civil society organizations, who will have new lessons in dealing with multiple risks.

The way forward

Build back better might be an effective tagline, but as a recovery narrative our experience with disasters tells us it can be manipulated and politicized. The meanings and actions that the term embodies are shaped by authorities, humanitarian donors, and international NGOs, and do not always reflect the realities or wishes of affected people. This restricts the potential to address pre-existing systemic challenges that shape vulnerability to disasters and their impacts, such as social inequality and natural resource degradation.

Disaster and crisis recoveries need to take a comprehensive and systemic approach. As seen in India, recovery efforts will impact complex environmental, economic, sociopolitical systems. We therefore need interdisciplinary research to better inform disaster management plans that can address multiple, interdependent risks and vulnerabilities.

As many are increasingly considering the systemic nature of risk, we need narratives not only of “better”, but also narratives that can challenge the power structures which create and perpetuate risk, vulnerability and inequality.