As G20 world leaders meet, it is time for a fundamental overhaul of global investment policy to build for the future. That future depends on public services and the people who provide them. Crisis has brought recognition to “front-line” workers, public and private, who are both visible and essential. However, all workers are essential.
In public services, they include workers in health, care and education who make things happen despite COVID19 as well as those who keep communities safe and clean, make fair elections possible, provide transport and clean water and millions of other people who make things work.
They do not profit remotely from the work of others. Rather, they enhance and enrich the communities in which they live and work.
Correcting the Course
In much of the world, long before the pandemic, austerity measures and structural adjustment programmes have been promoting cuts in real investment in public services and fostered privatization. One of the primary reasons that the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals was already off track was that badly needed investments were not being made.
Public investment was further diminished where it was not properly managed and controlled. Unsound policy and practices diverted it to other purposes and places, including to dividends for private investors in companies working to profit from public services and often into tax havens.
Inequality, already a global social injustice, accelerated with the pandemic. Millions lost jobs and became impoverished in a massive upward re-distribution of wealth. The net worth of billionaires went up by 33 per cent while the tax base shrunk, and economic activity plummeted. The market has never fairly distributed opportunities, but that becomes more evident in times of crisis.
Much hard-won if slow progress on gender rights and equity has slipped away. Advances in the education of girls has slowed or been reversed. Women have again shouldered the increase in unpaid work caused by confinements and the economic status of women has declined. Violence against women has skyrocketed.
School closures have meant that many children have returned to work. It may be difficult to get them to go back to school. Progress on eliminating child labour has been rapidly reversed.
The underfunding and understaffing of health systems left them unprepared to confront the pandemic and is now precluding access to essential care for millions of patients.
The virus and its effects have disproportionately hit marginalised groups including migrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities. Hostility towards those same groups has often grown. Fears of “outsiders” has been exploited by authoritarians and used to weaken support for democracy.
Not only have long-standing inequalities been deepened by the pandemic, but they have been aggravated by cuts in public services. Boosting budgets and access to quality public services will help reduce inequality and open up opportunity.
Building a future of opportunity
In the multiple crises of inequality and bigotry, economic catastrophe, and erosion of democracy, public services are a counter-cyclical force. Ensuring that access to quality public services, especially health and education, is available for all and not just for those who can afford to pay for them is crucial to any workable exit strategy and to building a better, fairer, and more sustainable future.
Furthermore, the pandemic is exposing how public services are essential to the economy, to support local businesses, to ensure a social and economic sustainable development. We reject the idea that recovery plans have to choose between the social or the economic approach. We need both, as one enhances the effectiveness of the other.
The post-pandemic recovery requires a new vision for an inclusive society. During the COVID 19 pandemic, several governments took extraordinary initiatives to sustain the health systems, hire nurses and doctors, to subsidise business and families. Billions and billions of taxpayers money have been injected into the economy, often for the benefit of big corporates. This shows that it is above all a matter of political will, and when there is an urgency hard decision can be taken quickly. Now it is time to show such a resolution for a deep change. Investing in public services and rebuilding our communities cannot be short-term. The urgency will not disappear in six months or a year depending on the performance of stock markets. That means:
- Resources need to be made available for public investment. Fair corporate, individual, wealth and other forms of taxation can raise considerable revenue if they are collected. That requires regional and global coordination by governments to protect against tax evasion and avoidance, including eliminating tax havens and introducing a global minimum corporate tax rate. It also means ending the competition among governments to reduce taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.
- Global solidarity. The pandemic and related crises have taught us that global challenges cannot be met at national level alone and that viruses respect no borders. Just as the well-being of all citizens depends on progress for those on the margins, our global well-being depends on progress for poor countries. The global recovery will require public investment in developing countries that cannot be generated by domestic sources. Vaccines against COVID-19 are also a question of global solidarity. They are being developed with enormous public investment, but in a nationalist, competitive, and proprietary way. Vaccines must be widely and freely available if the global pandemic is to be overcome.
- Transforming international financial institutions. Large debt burdens and anti-social conditionality force countries to choose between the mandate of their citizens and the conditions of the IFIs. The 76 poorest countries are obliged to pay 106 billion dollars in debt-service costs over the next two years. Creditors should forgive those payments and ensure that those resources are reallocated to education and health care. In the case of SDG4 on education and SDG3 on health, it would only partially finance the resource gap to meet those goals for 2030. The roles of the IMF and the World Bank should be re-examined. in the light of the many failures of the market-dogma driven policies of recent decades and break the habit of repeating the same mistakes.
- Climate crisis. Extreme climate events are already creating human suffering and damaging the planet. Action is of the greatest urgency. The skills and dedication of first responders have been repeatedly put to the test. They are backed up by workers in health care and other public services. The climate crisis cannot be ignored. Educators should be encouraged and free to teach about it and equip students to act. Governments and public employees need to enable this transition. Recovery planning and development should incorporate the reduction of carbon emissions and public participation in that process, including through social dialogue. Ensuring that new jobs are good, and stable requires that workers in new industries are free to exercise their rights to organise and bargain.
- Strengthening public services. This means stopping the privatization of public services, excluding the funding of public services from the definition of the public debt, allowing government the fiscal space to own and manage them as public goods. Effective public investment in health and education and other services requires investment in the workers who provide those services. There are massive shortages of workers in public services, particularly in education and health care. Crises, but also staff shortages, are sapping well-being, creating dangerous stress, and undercutting standards. Workers need to have access to quality training and development. But they should also be treated with respect and properly compensated. One may not “live by bread alone”, but one cannot put food on the table or pay the rent with loyalty and dedication.
- Rebuild the capacity to provide independent policy advice. Previous rounds of austerity have gutted governments capacity to provide high quality independent policy advice. COVID has revealed how many countries now depend on advice from corporate interests – with devastating consequences. Democracy and quality public services for all require that we rebuild this capacity inside government.
PSI and EI sectors are different but they are interdependent. Healthy schools, education for health, good education and training for health care and other workers in the public sector are among the obvious ties.
We share the values of public service and treasure the public good. Community is important to nurture and support individuals and maintain decent societies. A sense of community should be based on what we are for and not who we are against. The same is true for a global community bound together by common and universal values. We do not believe that a world driven by individual gain or special interests can be healthy or coherent or sustainable.
Governments must act with a sense of urgency. They should understand that tinkering around the edges will not work and will sabotage the future. The profound and fundamental challenges we face demand far-reaching solutions that will mend our global community.
We need to build a consensus and reform global institutions so that they will enable us to resolve conflict, respect others, move closer to justice, and live and work together better. That means public investment on a scale without precedent in peace time. It also requires summoning and sustaining political will for progress. Only that can vanquish dangerous cynicism, provide collective hope, free our better natures, and set a new course for the future. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.