Health and Healthcare Systems

4 ways to deliver social justice during the COVID-19 recovery

Slums and high-rise buildings in close proximity in Mumbai, India.

Only by addressing systemic inequalities will we ensure our cities and societies remain resilient. Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Berit Gleixner
Community Lead, Civil Society, World Economic Forum Geneva
Natalie Cilem
Community Specialist, Civil Society, World Economic Forum
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Social Justice

The COVID-19 virus has exposed, fed off and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race. The economic and social disruptions created by the pandemic are severe, and addressing them is urgent to ensure that the recovery does not take us back to the status quo.

Last month, leaders across business, civil society and government came together for the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda week held under the theme “A Crucial Year to Rebuild Trust”. In times of uncertainty, turbulence and volatility, high levels of trust and a sense of belonging are key to holding our societies together and building the resilience needed to move forward as a collective.

The pandemic threatens to reverse the march towards equality
The pandemic threatens to reverse the march towards equality. Image: IMF

Achieving social justice, identifying and addressing systemic inequalities must be a priority for all sectors with the pandemic threatening the biggest rise in inequality since records began. What policies, practices and partnerships are needed to ensure a just recovery in the decade of delivery?

Here are four key takeaways from the #DA21 session “Delivering Social Justice in the Recovery”:

1. Equality at the heart of social justice and our economic strategies

During the session, Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, emphasized: “Many of us think of inequality as something just for idealists or an inconvenience to the serious business of capitalism. Oxfam’s message is that equality is a fresh, moral and serious framework that can reshape the way we run our economies for the 21st century.”

Equality has the potential to drive us to achieve the global goals that governments around the world have agreed to. However, as Bucher emphasized, tinkering at the edges won’t do; ending extreme inequality and abolishing gender and racial injustice must be at the very core of our economic strategy.

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2. Reorganize, reimagine and dismantle pre-COVID norms and structures

If capitalism is to be sustained, we must deliberately put a nail in the coffin of the Friedman ideology that allowed and propelled the kind of inequality we witness today. Stakeholder capitalism, “a form of capitalism in which companies seek long-term value creation by considering the needs of all their stakeholders, and society at large” must become the new business as usual, according to Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

This also requires that many of the norms, structures and understandings of the pre-COVID world must be reorganized, reimagined and dismantled. In the words of Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation: “The issue of white supremacy and patriarchy must be acknowledged in the boardroom as part of a diagnosis of recovery. Without acknowledging it, we will engage in performative acts; we now have to ask ourselves how to move beyond statements.”

The Ford Foundation has committed $330 million funds for racial justice work over the course of 2020-2021, making it one of the largest investments in racial equity work in the US. Such an unprecedented investment signals a movement beyond the statements of Black Lives Matter to creating actionable change.

One area the Ford Foundation has committed to supporting is the “future of workers”, underscoring a human-centred approach to policy efforts around the future of work. In the US, business as usual has left employees without basic social safety nets like paid sick leave and has left workers out of equity generating policies like employee stock ownership. A future where workers are at the centre of public policy debates would create tangible pathways to tackling the “compounding disadvantages of frontline and essential workers” in our system.

3. Cities as vehicles for social justice

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, called for targeted public policy efforts and investments from the public and private sectors and civil society in endeavouring to transform cities into more equitable places. Indeed, the proportion of the global population residing in urban areas is projected to grow from 77% in 2000 to 84% in 2030, making cities important vehicles to achieve more just societies.

Cities are an ideal place to push just recovery policies and partnerships because they are made up of diverse communities and thinking, and have been the epicentre of progressive politics and anti-populist movements in the 21st century. Mayor Khan pointed out that even in a city as progressive as London, the pandemic has done more than laid bare the structural inequalities facing society – it has exacerbated them. “We have to use this pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reboot our economies across the globe, and that means not just for government but also civic society, the business community, the faith community and others, to work together to address the inequalities we have talked about for too many years,” Khan said.

Cities are both more inequal and more progressive than rural communities
Cities are both more unequal and more progressive than rural communities. Image: OECD

In 2020, the City of London declared itself an anti-racist body. The Mayor asserted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which reached across the Atlantic and spread around the world, was so globally resonant because the effects of structural inequality and injustice touches all societies. In looking towards a just recovery, targeted public policy efforts and multistakeholder partnerships are essential to building inroads into tackling injustice and inequity in major cities and beyond.

4. Address issues of social justice in a collaborative and integrated manner

Anisa Kamadoli Costa, Chairman and President of the Tiffany & Co Foundation and Chief Sustainability Officer at Tiffany & Co, said no one can afford to think or work in a silo. The business community has to address issues such as equity, social and environmental justice in a collaborative and integrated manner. For business to authentically contribute to a just recovery, they need to listen to the voice of civil society and those most affected, giving them not just a seat at the table, but inviting them to co-create that future. “It is critical that business backs up their words with action, it is not simply about speaking out but about authenticity,” says Costa.

According to recent findings of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, the pandemic has spurred trust in business, observing declined levels of trust in both civil society and government. This comes with an increased demand for CEOs to lead on societal issues.

Pressure is building on business to lead on social justice
Pressure is building on business to lead on social justice Image: Edelman's Trust Barometer

Through its Platform for Global Public Goods, the World Economic Forum is accelerating collective evidence and action on social justice, sustainability and the SDGs. As part of its Lighthouse Projects on Social Justice and Sustainability, the Forum will be gathering examples of how business, government and civil society are taking integrated approaches to social justice and sustainability, and driving multistakeholder coalitions in supporting vulnerable communities towards the SDGs.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The next critical juncture identified to ensure social justice post-COVID-19 is the distribution of a vaccine that is fair and needs-based – a #PeoplesVaccine available to everyone, free of charge and distributed fairly.

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