Building Back Better - PSI

  • 21 December 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brutally exposed the weaknesses in our current model of globalisation and neoliberal economics.  In countries across the world, people have been left asking: how could we have been so exposed and unprepared?  How is it possible that after years of booming stock markets and technological advances, many wealthy countries have struggled to keep their older members of society safe, their economies running, and their health services from collapsing?

And, if these are the countries whose example is to be emulated, what does it say about the development policies they have promoted for decades?

The root cause of too many of these problems is the slow, but deliberate hollowing out of public services, made possible by a destructive narrative which has sought to undermine the value of our public sector.

The influential US conservative strategist Grover Norquist said in an interview with US National Public Radio (NPR) in 2001 "I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

This choice of words expressed a disturbing contempt for our public sector. But perhaps more importantly, it implicitly acknowledged the tactics required to convince people to give up one of their most valuable assets – cut it down so it is no longer universal, accessible, or of high quality – then quietly kill it.

Norquist was specifically arguing that conservatives should tempt people with lower taxes and then use rising government debt to force through cuts to government spending.

Reaganite and Thatcherite leaders across the world have used strategies such as privatisation, arguing that the private sector was more efficient. Many centrist governments – typified by Blair’s Third Way – have argued that public services can be more effectively delivered by introducing private sector practice and outsourcing. What unites all these approaches is fundamental undervaluing of public services. The implication of the promise of market reform is that quality public services are not worth paying for and, instead of investing in them, we should reform, outsource and marketize them.

These approaches avoid the political task of valuing public sector work and the practical task of building quality public services.

They abdicate this responsibility with the false promise that the private sector will provide more value and better services, run more efficiently and for the same cost – or less!

Building Back Better requires the courage to recognize the value of public sector work.

This Article by PSI Assistant General Secretary Daniel Bertossa is extracted from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Geneva Publication "Building Back Better," featuring 13 think pieces from authors of diverse backgrounds working for international organisations, NGOs, and trade unions.