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A new consensus for the post-Covid19 world: How to disrupt our obsolete social contract and build back more equitably

At the Paris Peace Forum on November 12 last year, French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders launched a global discussion on forging a new consensus for the post-Covid-19 world. This discussion is continuing through an ongoing debate, with contributions from leaders and experts from around the world. Below, explore the contribution of Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC.


Our current policy and program responses to Covid-19 risk replicating existing cycles of inequality instead of disrupting them. Levels of poverty have regressed to those of the late 90s, erasing two decades of progress, and economic growth remains uneven and stagnant, particularly in countries where most people live in poverty.

The rise in poverty fueled by the pandemic has diverted our attention to the current crisis and away from the root cause: inequitable systems and an increasingly obsolete social contract that kept 700 million people trapped in extreme poverty prior to the pandemic.

To break this cycle, we need to prioritize people on the margins of society in our development plans. Women, informal workers, people in extreme poverty, and other groups in vulnerable situations have fallen through the cracks of our patchwork social systems and consequently borne the brunt of the negative impacts of Covid-19. In our work at BRAC, an international NGO founded in Bangladesh that combats global inequality, working directly with communities is critical to begin fixing what is broken and forge a social contract that works for everyone.

Covid-19 revealed the need to invest directly in people living in poverty and the community-level workers they rely on, particularly health workers. In Bangladesh, BRAC developed a health system with this aim half a decade ago. During the pandemic, it became the foundation for a Covid-19 response, which comprised strengthening local surveillance systems, deploying essential maternal and child services support to community health clinics, and fostering community ownership through local committees trained to disseminate health information. To date, we have trained and mobilized over 13,000 community leaders and more than 8,000 community groups to reinforce mask-wearing habits and behavioral change around hygiene in their communities. We have also taken the opportunity to increase public trust and usage of digital health platforms – which have been historically underused – by delivering vital telemedicine and psychosocial services.

While Covid-19 has limited opportunities, it has also created a window to innovate to tackle historical inequalities. In Bangladesh, access to justice has long been hampered by a backlog of pending cases, yet there has always been resistance to online justice platforms. Despite over 400 BRAC-operated legal aid clinics switching primarily to delivering services over the phone and online during the lockdown, more than USD 3.7 million was recovered through online alternative dispute resolution (ADR), primarily for women after divorce. Digital financial transaction habits also reached a new height through collaborative efforts from the government and other organizations. BRAC digitally transferred USD 17 million in emergency cash support and rapid savings refunds to 700,000 households and refinanced USD 600 million in loans for over half a million people from August 2020 till May 2021, mainly small enterprises, who were hit particularly hard.

As emergency needs are met, we must turn our attention to harnessing the talents of women and girls through education – the most powerful tool we have to boost economic growth and equalize opportunity. Our research indicates that school closures increase pressure to drop out and marry early, threatening massive gains in girls’ education in Bangladesh. In an attempt to tackle this, BRAC-operated schools are using television, radio, and feature phones to reach 750,000 students with at-home learning platforms. Women’s empowerment groups like BRAC’s polli shomaj (community-level women’s networks) are doing critical outreach to provide services and prevent violence and child marriage from limiting girls’ potential. These models are built for scale and highly adaptable to other contexts and crises. Policymakers must also prioritize establishing infrastructure such as affordable Internet and broadband connection as basic entitlements – no less essential than roads and bridges – to ensure equal access to connectivity for younger generations in rural and urban areas alike.

We need to take a long view to put the furthest behind first. Integrated approaches that build resilience for people from the most marginalized communities, including women, are proven to have long-term success in breaking cycles of inequality. Social and economic inclusion approaches like Graduation, pioneered by BRAC, address the needs of women in extreme poverty holistically and activate their potential to sustain an upwards trajectory years after the program ends. During lockdowns, Graduation helped over two-thirds of participants in the Philippines remain resilient and continue income-generating activities while raising their awareness of health messaging and providing linkages to government social protection services. Economic impacts of shocks can be lessened if marginalized women, who make up the majority of informal workers and people in extreme poverty, are included under comprehensive social protection systems that promote resilience.

Any response must have the most marginalized at the center of interventions. We cannot forget that, while everyone is affected, the effects are significantly more severe for people already in vulnerable situations. In the coming years, with climate change, we will see the frequency of crises increase, as well as more overlapping crises. Bangladesh in 2020 saw the combination of the pandemic, super cyclone Amphan affecting the south, the longest-running floods in decades affecting the north, and the ongoing Rohingya crisis. We need efficient systems to quickly and effectively identify and prioritize the people who need support the most – and a focus on prioritizing solutions that can be scaled to provide more sustainable and far-reaching forms of support.

Governments are the key agents of lasting systems change at scale, and it is their responsibility to ensure programs and policies meant to empower their most marginalized populations are truly inclusive, comprehensive, and adaptive. Meanwhile, multilateral organizations, NGOs, the private sector, and philanthropy all have a critical supporting role in strengthening their capacity and meeting resource gaps to ensure no one is left behind.

The pandemic is a challenge to societies worldwide: either reimagine what we owe to one another, particularly to the people who are most vulnerable, or risk losing decades of progress to increasingly intense and frequent disasters. Evidence of bottom-up development by organizations like BRAC can help seize our current opportunity to reach a more equitable post-Covid consensus. This requires designing policies with the people they are intended to serve. It means prioritizing solutions that can be scaled through existing systems to reach more people with support more quickly and models that build on the innate potential of the most marginalized people to be agents of change in their own lives. Now is the moment for forging a new social contract that delivers on its promises: progress for all.

Asif Saleh, Executive Director, BRAC