How Not To Go ‘Back To Normal’ After COVID-19: Planning For Post-Neoliberal Development

By Giuseppe Feola, Bram Büscher, Andrew Fischer and Martijn Koster

COVID-19 has shaken the world. Early emergency responses across the world led to drastic changes in local and global development trajectories within a very short period of time, from food insecurity, schooling and gender inequality, to debt and employment crises in much of the Global South, among other changes. A year on and despite the rollout of vaccines in many countries, it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will dissipate; not least because of the starkly unequal distribution of vaccines within and across countries, which is ethically reprehensible and epidemiologically unsound. Given this deep rupture to pre-COVID-19 business-as-usual and the severe adjustments that continue to be made, it is clear that we will not get ‘back to normal’ any time soon, if ever. Nor indeed should we. But how not to go back to normal?

Clearly, none of us knows how all these changes will take shape in the months and years to come. What we do know is that they will depend on underlying historical socio-economic forces that must be central in our understanding of – and plans for – a world beyond COVID-19. After all, the fact that COVID-19 has had such a major impact is due to the neoliberal economic development model that has been dominant globally over the last 40 years. This model demands ever-growing circulation of goods and people, despite the countless socio-ecological problems and growing inequalities this generates. The COVID-19 crisis has painfully exposed the weaknesses of this neoliberal growth machine.

This moment makes it incumbent on all of us to envision how the current situation could lead to more sustainable, fair, healthy, caring, and resilient forms of development going forward. But while it is clear that the cultivation of a post-development pluriversal model needs to guide the way forward, where to find direction and purpose towards and across this pluriversality remains an open question. Multiple answers are possible, but they must share one thing in order to be meaningful: they must be based on forms of development that do not go back to normal.

Five pillars for post-neoliberal development

The current ‘normal’ idea of development is, basically, capitalist neoliberal development. This means a focus on economic growth, capital accumulation and increased consumption of goods, services, and travel, all within an economic framework characterized by private property rights, dominance of markets and market logics, and the commodification of human and non-human life. Moving beyond this means challenging this neoliberal model explicitly.

The following priorities for post-neoliberal development are meant to do just this and so aim to achieve sustainable and equitable transformation.

First, a reorientation of priorities away from generalized economic growth is urgently required. The blind pursuit of economic growth is predicated on violence, destruction and appropriation of ecologies, human bodies and cultures. Important to emphasise here is that economic growth does not necessarily translate into wellbeing. There is a need to rethink the notion of economic progress for all sectors of society and the economy according to their contributions to wellbeing within ecological and climatic boundaries (e.g., critical public sectors such as energy, education, health) and sectors that need to radically degrow due to their fundamental unsustainability or their role in driving unnecessary consumption (e.g., private sector oil, gas, and advertising).

Second, achieving a sustainable shift away from growth requires a massive scaling up of redistribution, locally and globally, whilst respecting principles of autonomy and self-determination. This should start by ending the regressive redistribution of wealth to the rich such as through the massive haemorrhaging of wealth from poorer parts of the world through tax avoidance and evasion by some of the richest corporations in the world. Alternatives include, for example, establishing truly universalistic social policies in all parts of the world, in a manner that decommodifies essential public services such as health and education, and provides generous and egalitarian social protection, with universal basic income as one way to achieve this. These should be financed through a strong progressive taxation of income, profits, and wealth.

Third, a transformation towards regenerative agriculture and convivial conservation is urgent and necessary. Capitalist agriculture contributes to broader socio-environmental development crises, and to the specific pandemic crisis we currently face. Healing agriculture requires methods and visions for food and farming that are not just circular, but actively regenerative and founded on taking care of people, animals, soils and the environment. This implies models for food and farming that enable agrarian livelihoods, fair agricultural employment conditions and overcome separations of public and private spheres; entail the production and consumption of mostly local and plant-based diets and take into account local climatic and cultural conditions; and that are based on convivial forms of conservation that move beyond nature-society dualisms to put socio-ecological justice at the centre of development.

Fourth, in the light of strong evidence on the disproportionate environmental impact of luxury and wasteful consumption and travel, we need a drastic shift to basic, necessary, sustainable and satisfying consumption and travel: consumption and travel that focuses on the quality of individual and collective lives rather than to satisfy artificially created needs and desires that are continuously reinvented by advertisement firms to push economic growth. This does not lead to closed, inward looking societies, but rather acknowledges the environmental and societal costs of our consumption and travel patterns and urges a move beyond these.

Five, debt cancellation is essential, in combination with redistribution, especially for workers and small business owners and for countries in the Global South. Unsustainable debt creates tremendous pressure on countries and companies to remain solvent and pushes them into unsustainable activities. In addition, conditionalities associated with many types of debt undermine meaningful forms of development by imposing punitive subordination through financial (neo-)colonialism.

Ensuring space for diversity

These five priorities challenge and move beyond the capitalist neoliberal model explicitly and the longer development trajectory within which it is embedded, while pointing towards its replacement with principles and priorities that place care for others and for the planet at the centre of local and global relations. At the same time, these principles and priorities move beyond the hegemonic neoliberal development model and aim to challenge the idea that ‘one model fits all’. Different concrete development priorities, such as the above, should not be seen as a new development model for all, but rather as strategies for thinking about new possibilities, and for giving direction and purpose across difference and diversity. The five priorities are framed explicitly to recognize already-existing alternatives around the world: alternatives that are already remaking economies and polities in ways that respect ecological limits, that centre on social justice, and that depart from a hegemonic singular vision model to a pluriversal model.

This vision can be the basis for more sustainable and equal societies, that can better prevent and deal with shocks and pandemics to come.

Giuseppe Feola is Associate Professor of Social Change for Sustainability at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University.

Bram Büscher is Professor and Chair of the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University.

Andrew Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Martijn Koster is Associate Professor at the department of Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University.

This post summarizes a proposal for planning for a world beyond COVID-19 which was published in World Development by a collective of development scholars based in the Netherlands. The journal article is available open access here.

Image: Javcollao, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons