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Reflections on 2020 and what ‘building back better’ ought to mean

Opinion |
Reflections on 2020 and what 'building back better' ought to mean

By Joshua Castellino, Executive Director at Minority Rights Group

As the final embers of 2020 fade, it is important to reflect on what we have learnt, to come to terms with what has been traumatic for many, and to salvage the values and societies from the fire sale they have been reduced to. The rhetoric of ‘building back better’ is catching on. For some, this can act as solace for current traumas, for others as lip service for minimal change, for still others as a nostalgic call for a return to what they consider to be the halcyon days prior to Covid-19.

Each one reflecting back, will have their own observations. For me five salient elements, revealed this year, need to be heeded to substantiate the quest to build back better.

First, that our governments and those who managed to seize the reins of power are, largely, deeply mediocre. The spectacular governance failures, mostly led by men, to control, regulate and defeat the spread of the pandemic was, in most cases, eye-watering. It was almost as if, at a time of the gravest crisis so far this century, the least talented individuals had been left to command responsibility. That they failed is no surprise, that they decided that the counter-offensive to their failure was to obfuscate truths, shows how a lack of morality adheres strongly to a lack of competence. Yet others, many women leaders with a different approach, generated far better outcomes.

Second, that profiteering, that age old endeavour born of greed, is an inhumane and ruthless business. The growth in the wealth of individuals of high net worth and the men and women that do their bidding continued unabated despite crushing economic blows. Rather than respond to needs around them, these individuals and the systems that put them on the perches they occupy, profited from crisis. That our tax systems had no way to capitalise on unjust enrichment tells us all we need to know about the urgency of financial reform.

Third, that better climate realities are possible. As economies slowed, especially in their use of fossil fuels, immediate benefits began to be felt in environmental terms. The careful propaganda funded over the years by extractive industries that obscured the reality of fossil fuel impacts on our health and planet unravelled in a matter of weeks. Greater engagement with local businesses and more positive responses to individual- and community-led enterprises instead yielded a sense of community, ownership and pride that must be part of the attempt to build back better.

Fourth, that as a collective, we have the human capacity to overcome tough existential challenges. As the virus has raged, the process of assessment, containment and eventually the design of a ‘cure’ (or at least a preventative vaccine) kicked into overdrive. Asset stripping, neglect or a failure to invest in health services had left response mechanisms bare, but human endeavour and intellect came together with a burning passion to combat the adversities, finding ways to innovate, usually despite rather than assisted by incompetent governments. Minorities and indigenous peoples, and especially women, used to working in adversity, showed the rest how to survive and keep from becoming shackled by crisis. This learned resilience augurs well for the battles ahead on the health, environmental and system change fronts, and also highlighted how people with this drive and necessary abilities may be found outside formal structures.

Fifth, that good things can happen when communities mobilise across divisions. Pushed into corners, people have shown they can mobilise and demand more. The #FridaysforFuture and #BlackLivesMatter movements and the prevalence of significant youth voices within them have been inspiring. Young people are the most disconcerting victims of the combination of the pandemic, structural inequality, the depletion of public services including education and the disappearance of jobs. Many of the problems confronting them are rooted in centuries of colonialism and a legacy of ethnically and religiously glorified nationalism that persists to this day. This is illustrated by the ongoing debate around the statues of slavers and imperialists that line our streets ­– men on pedestals who generations have been brainwashed to revere. That these are unjustified odes to theft and climate destruction is being brought home by street movements. We need to listen, heed the message and collectively reorient the future with youth, drawn from all walks of life, driving us forward, and the more diverse the better in order to be primed for success.

The blame game sponsored by politicians and ‘leaders’ brought many societies close to collapse in 2020, while their friends and benefactors profited. These benefactors want weaker environmental regulations, since they have neither the faith nor the empathy with their fellow human beings, and would rather exploit resources now and invest in technology to airlift them to Mars, than fix the havoc they have wreaked on our communities and the planet.

For MRG, 2020 was intended to be the end of a year-long commemoration of the organization’s 50th anniversary. We postponed and then cancelled our events as circumstances no longer allowed us to gather our friends and allies. We reflected also that the mood of the moment no longer permitted us to celebrate in any meaningful way. Rather, with the onset of the pandemic followed by the horrific murder of George Floyd at the hands of US police and the subsequent global outpouring of solidarity, the year has proven to be a time for us to provide urgent support to the communities we work with as well as a moment for reviewing MRG’s own history. We have produced a short report that summarises and reflects on the various ways that MRG has sought to work in solidarity with minorities and indigenous peoples around the world.

Throughout its 50-year history, MRG has aimed to shine a spotlight on the stories and situations that have not received the attention they deserve. We are proud of the ways our organization has adapted to emerging challenges and adopted new ways of working during the half-century of our existence. We are also reflective about our need to adapt as a northern headquartered organisation working in tricky and unjust global climes. Given the challenges that characterise 2020, this has hardly been a year for resting on laurels. We continue to take stock and reflect on what we need to do better to support those facing entrenched obstacles that remain in the way of achieving social justice for all, regardless of backgrounds or identities.

For me 2020 underlined how humanity has not only the collective might but also the capacity and skill to build back better. The green shoots of recovery are all around us. If we can nourish them through collective human action we can and will regreen the desert. And we can leave those who want to revel in the bareness of the destruction they have wrought, those who seek to extend it because they thrive in its embrace, and their supporters to film themselves and disseminate it as reality TV, while the rest of us get on with building resilient, cohesive and diverse communities. Are you up for that challenge in 2021?

Photo: An elderly Nyangatom man in Omo valley, Ethiopia. Credit: Alamy

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