This forum contribution highlights the confluence of two distinct trends in the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. On one hand, many of the worst socio-economic costs of the virus and control measures have been disproportionately borne by marginalized workers, primarily in the global south. Often these impacts have not overlapped with the public health costs of the virus itself. In this sense the pandemic has highlighted the ways that risks in the global political economy are unevenly and systematically distributed. On the other, early indications are that highly individualized notions of ‘risk management’ and ‘resilience’ will be central to post-crisis global development agendas. At the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic has made the systemic and unequal nature of risks in the global political economy visible, then, many of the most marginalized segments of the world’s population are being asked to take responsibility for managing those risks.
In this contribution, I point out two things about the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it. First, some of the worst initial consequences in terms of livelihoods were witnessed in places in the Global South that have been so far comparatively mildly affected by the virus itself. Second, responses to the pandemic, especially in global development governance, have often doubled down on efforts to promote “risk management” and “resilience” that have become increasingly predominant over the last decade (see Best 2013; Sharma and Soederberg 2020). By “global development governance,” I’m referring here to the loose networks of bilateral and philanthropic donors, multilateral organizations, consultancies, and so forth through which efforts to promote development and poverty reduction are organized.
Simultaneously, then, the pandemic is thus revealing with lethal clarity how risks and harms are systemically distributed and embedded in social power relations. Yet key agencies in global development, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are doubling down on various depoliticizing efforts to cultivate individual resilience in response to the pandemic itself and, more widely, in response to accelerating climate breakdown (on which see also Katz-Rosene, this collection) and precarious livelihoods. Cultivating individualized modes of resilience to “external” shocks seems decidedly like an inadequate approach to governing the pandemic itself, much less the wider crises of precarity and continuing climate breakdown that will likely be increasingly at the forefront in the coming years. I take each of these points up in turn in the following discussion.
COVID-19, Poverty, and Dispossession
The socioeconomic effects of the COVID-19 crisis, at least in its first year, have often not mapped onto the public health consequences of the virus itself. It is undoubtedly true (1) that among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, those with the worst records of containing the virus (namely, the United States and the United Kingdom) have also borne the worst consequences in terms of GDP growth, and (2) that within those economies, the virus itself has fallen hardest on already marginalized people, notably in the form of the disproportionate impact on Black communities and severe outbreaks of COVID-19 among migrant workers in agricultural and agro-industrial settings. It is nonetheless the case that, in a global perspective, some of the worst consequences for incomes and livelihoods have taken place far from virus epicenters. These patterns make sense, I argue, when we place them in the context of longer-run processes of global capitalist restructuring that have systematically externalized risks and costs onto peripheral people and places.
Workers in export industries at the margins of global supply chains were among the first and hardest hit by the economic consequences of the virus itself and accompanying lockdowns. Thousands of casualized horticultural workers in Kenya lost jobs in early April, as orders for cut flowers from European supermarkets evaporated. Garment factories in Cambodia were estimated to have already laid off close to one hundred thousand workers in May 2020 (see World Bank 2020, 15). More than a million garment workers in Bangladesh had been fired or furloughed by April 2020, 72 percent of whom were sent home without pay after virtually all buyers refused to compensate suppliers for wages or raw materials for work already undertaken on canceled orders (Anner 2020, 2). The Clean Clothes Campaign (2020) estimates that garment workers globally had lost US$6 billion in unpaid wages midway through 2020, including through the refusal to pay for work already undertaken. The effects of closures and lost wages in Cambodia have proven especially disastrous because they have dovetailed with what was already a spiraling microfinance crisis in which average levels of household indebtedness were double the country’s average GDP per capita (see Brickell et al. 2020). Cambodia is a particularly stark example here in that, as of January 2021, the country had recorded a total of just 392 confirmed COVID-19 cases and no confirmed deaths (WHO 2021).
More recent evidence suggests that aggregate costs are being borne disproportionately by working classes in general, and by those in the poorest countries in particular. Recent research from the International Labour Organization (ILO) has found that average wages have fallen in roughly two-thirds of countries, and average wages have increased in a minority of cases where job losses have fallen particularly disproportionately on the lowest paid workers (International Labour Organization 2020b, 15–16). In May of 2020 the ILO also estimated that poverty among informal workers in low-income countries would increase by more than 50 percent (International Labour Organization 2020a). Similarly, more recent large-scale phone surveys carried out by the World Bank indicated that two-thirds of households in low-income countries reported a decline in income since the start of the pandemic, and 51 percent of households reported food insecurity, despite comparatively fewer households in these countries having lost jobs (Yoshida, Narayan, and Wu 2020). There is evidence that the costs of livelihood loss are also unevenly distributed along gendered (Agarwal 2021) and racial lines (Flores Tavares and Betti 2021).
In important respects, this uneven distribution of costs is the logical outcome of the restructuring of global capitalism in recent decades. Two background developments are perhaps especially important to understand here. First, global structures of production have been radically restructured in ways that have extended the reach of corporate power, both directly and indirectly, across a number of sectors. Manufacturing and agricultural industries have increasingly come to be dominated by complex supply chains, offshoring and outsourcing the lowest-margin, highest-risk, and most competitive aspects of production processes to locations primarily in the Global South. Agricultural production has been marked, on the one hand, by a dramatic concentration of corporate control over inputs and over marketing by a few large firms and, on the other hand, by increasingly volatile prices—the risks of which are borne predominantly by peripheral small farmers or states in the Global South (see Clapp 2019; Staritz et al. 2018).
Second, the confluence of these shifting patterns of production with neoliberal reforms has driven deepening precarity and exposure to climate breakdown. Cuts to social services, currency devaluations, privatizations and restructurings of public enterprises, and the retrenchment of public employees under the auspices of structural adjustment created social dislocations that have yet to be resolved in many places. Elaborate chains of subcontracting in global production networks have worked to squeeze peripheral workers into ever cheaper and faster modes of work (see Phillips 2016; Selwyn 2018). Rural producers in the Global South, meanwhile, are increasingly displaced from land and livelihoods—by, for instance, land grabs, volatile prices, and the ways that the effects of these processes have amplified exposures to climate breakdown (see Li 2010; Bernards 2019; Natarajan, Brickell, and Parsons 2019).
The point here is that garment firms and supermarkets maintaining profitability while workers go hungry or bankrupt in Cambodia and Kenya is not a sign of breakdown so much as existing structures of global capitalism working exactly to plan. The disproportionate extent to which the costs of the pandemic have fallen on peripheral workers in the Global South is the outcome of decades of restructuring, which have progressively shifted risks onto precisely these workers while insulating corporate capital.
Resilient to What?
At the same time, though, as the COVID-19 crisis is starkly revealing and often exacerbating the systematic and uneven distribution of risk and vulnerability in the global political economy, responses to the poverty effects of this crisis have consistently doubled down on hyperindividualized narratives about resilience and risk management.
It’s worth recapping the rise of “risk management” and “resilience” in development governance briefly here. Following from the well-documented failures of structural adjustment, the World Bank and the IMF, as well as a number of key consultancies, philanthropic organizations, and think tanks (notably the World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation), have placed a growing emphasis on understanding poverty in terms of “resilience” to shocks and building capacities to manage risks (see Best 2013; Sharma and Soederberg 2020). One key element of this agenda has been the wider push for “financial inclusion” (see Mader 2018). The promotion of “resilience” through the provision of insurance services and credit, as well as a wider range of seeds and inputs, has also been a key element of responses to climate vulnerabilities facing smallholder farmers in the Global South (see Taylor 2018).
“Risk management” and “resilience” are very much at the core of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The managing director of the IMF wrote in September: “Perhaps first among the many lessons of 2020 is that the notion of so‑called black swan events is not some remote worry. These purportedly once‑in‑a‑generation events are occurring with increasing frequency” (Georgieva and Selassie 2020). The chief lesson taken from the pandemic, here, is that policy-making needs to shift toward a more preemptive, preparatory mode of dealing with “shocks,” which will come ever more frequently with accelerating climate change. But when we look at what measures might actually promote “resilience” here, we see, among other things, the adoption of rainwater harvesting techniques in Chad, “climate smart agriculture” by way of better mobile phone networks (and hence access to better weather information), new “digital skills,” and expanded access to electricity through “small, off-grid, solar powered energy plants” financed through “pay-as-you-go” models, and broadened access to finance (Georgieva and Selassie 2020).
Other examples proliferate. “Financial inclusion” narratives are getting renewed emphasis, with the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), the wider World Bank, and other agencies insisting that emergency assistance to the poorest in the midst of lockdown presents a prime opportunity to expand the use of digital payment systems (see Bernards 2020). Indeed, despite the already disastrous microcredit crisis in Cambodia, microfinance advocates in the country are doubling down on microcredit as a means of enabling people who have lost their jobs to cope with the crisis (see Brickell et al. 2020).
This doubling down on individualized modes of “resilience” is best understood against the background condition of pervasive austerity. This is alluded to directly at times—the piece from Georgieva and Selassie cited above, for instance, concludes by noting that the promotion of resilience will need to take place in a context where the pandemic has strained “already-limited fiscal space,” and external transfers “will be neither effective nor sufficient unless policy-induced distortions that stymie private investment are eliminated or public finance management systems improve” (Georgieva and Selassie 2020). Here again, this is reflective of longer-run patterns exacerbated by the pandemic. Restructured global financial systems have exacerbated the persistent restrictions on resources available to developing country governments (see Alami 2018). Access to resources for many developing country governments is increasingly determined by global market conditions over which they have little control, leading to increasingly volatile cycles of debt crises and austerity (see Bassett 2018; Bonizzi, Laskaridis, and Griffiths 2020). Austerity looks increasingly like a quasi-permanent condition across much of the Global South. The specifics of COVID-19 responses from the IMF in particular appear to be contributing to a deepening of conditions of austerity in the present crisis (see also Metinsoy in this collection). While the IMF has trumpeted its “unconditional” rescue packages for developing countries, the fine print on these suggests that the IMF has simply shifted from ex post to ex ante conditionality. That is, rather than compelling policy reforms in exchange for loans, the fund is granting loans only to countries that have already put in place “very strong” policy frameworks. Analysis from Oxfam suggests that the vast majority of IMF loans made in 2020 (seventy-six of ninety-one) have required spending cuts (Martin 2020).
The resort to depoliticizing solutions, downloading cost and responsibility for dealing with risks onto peripheral workers implicit in the growing policy emphasis on “resilience” is shaped in no small part by enduring conditions of austerity. But the last year has made grimly clear that it will likely be increasingly difficult to substantively address pressing development challenges in this way. Individualized modes of “resilience” are wholly inadequate in the face of the widespread structural patterns of dispossession underlined by the pandemic.
Conclusion: Centering Livelihoods in International Political Economy
In the brief discussion above, I’ve highlighted a key tension exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. On the one hand, the COVID-19 crisis has underlined the systemic nature of both risk and vulnerability in the global political economy. On the other, responses to the pandemic and, more broadly, post-pandemic responses to longer-run challenges of widespread precarity and accelerating climate crisis have increasingly been pitched in terms of “resilience” and “risk management” that pass responsibility for mitigating these hazards onto those with the least capacity to do so.
In this context, both the workings of global dispossession and vulnerability and the critical analysis of “risk” and “resilience” should be at the forefront of international political economy research going forward. The brief overview above does not permit any strong conclusions but does suggest some important questions for future research: How are risks distributed in the global political economy? How do the intersections of labor, land, and capital in particular livelihoods render people more or less vulnerable to crisis? Equally, what explains the persistence of “resilience” and “risk management” as policy frames in the face of crises that suggest their fundamental inadequacy?
The author has no competing interests to declare.
Nick Bernards is assistant professor of global sustainable development at the University of Warwick. He is author of The Global Governance of Precarity: Primitive Accumulation and the Politics of Irregular Work (Routledge, 2018) and A Critical History of Poverty Finance: Colonial Roots and Neoliberal Failures (Pluto Press, forthcoming).