Recovery Justice: More than "equality" is needed

June 04, 2020

by Jeremy Stone


People often refer to disasters as “the great equalizer”. Celebrities declare how “we are all in it together” while leaders promote our unity in the face of a “common enemy”. However, none of this is true. Vulnerability is socially constructed through intersections of class, race, gender, politics, and education. In many disasters the fact that people live in flood plains or in seismically unsafe housing usually derives from social inequalities that have created vulnerability for some people rather than others.

The process of an economic recovery is no different. While we may all experience a severe disruption like Covid-19, we are not all equal in the face of it. Not everyone has the luxury of working from home. Not every business owner has insurance or can equally cope with risks. So everyone starts out at different points of vulnerability in their recovery journey. However, many recovery programs use an equality framing (like programs after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina) which means that resources are spread across as many businesses as possible regardless of need or social context. If business owners lack existing foundations of wealth, capacity, and privilege, equal allocations of resources do not create equal recovery outcomes. The most vulnerable have less of a chance to succeed than the more affluent, and inequality worsens.

An online movement pushing for a #justrecovery from Covid-19 is brewing, which reflects many of the discussions academics  and activists have had since at least Hurricane Katrina. But what does recovery justice really mean in an economic context? The word “justice” may seem self-evident, but it is conceptually complex and its application to issues like disaster recovery contains both procedural and distributive questions: If our resources are limited, who gets supported? What resources do they get? Who is represented in decision-making and who isn’t?

Martha Nussbaum’s writings on the capability approach are useful here, and provide a good foundation for understanding recovery justice. Nussbaum argues that a just approach would focus on distributing goods and services in a way that, at a minimum, ensures the basic capabilities for living a desirable life. Some people need more investment than others to reach those basic capabilities, so a strictly egalitarian distribution might not create equitable outcomes (this is similar to the popular graphic on equality versus equity). Moreover, since different people desire different life outcomes, their preferences should guide the type and quality of goods and services they receive, which means that resources may be allocated in different ways across different populations.

For an economic disaster like Covid-19, we can apply Nussbaum to develop several principles that may guide us in a just recovery:

The most vulnerable people require more resources than others in recovery. For a recovery to be just, we need to ensure that everyone can access a minimum level of recovery outcomes. In practice this would mean channeling more resources to businesses in low-income and historically marginalized communities so they can reach a level of recovery that higher-income and more privileged communities can achieve with their existing wealth and power.

Good recovery requires a diversity of responses. Many communities simply need “different” solutions to their recovery challenges, which are not provided by one-size-fits-all Federal or Provincial programs. Financing, technical assistance, and other supports for businesses should be locally tailored to different communities, especially those that have greater educational, financial, and situational challenges.

Recovery strategies should be governed bottom-up, not top-down. Following on the previous principle, decisions about resource allocation should be made by the communities most vulnerable to disruption. This means either having greater representation by communities of color, low-income communities, and small businesses on recovery taskforces, or devolving programming decisions down to those communities so they can design and manage programming themselves.

The economy is a tool for well-being. Therefore “building back better” has to focus on social justice. The Sendai Framework principle of “build back better” promotes safer infrastructure and better housing, but in an economic context it should mean improved access to minimum capabilities for well-being. Rebuilding the economy must target the structural and cultural inequalities that exist in our current economy, focusing on issues like economic reconciliation, climate change, and structural racism.

Unintended consequences are just as perilous as negative intentions. Poorly designed recovery programs can amplify the effects of a disaster rather than reduce them. "Doing good" can often result in bad or worse outcomes. It may seem obvious, but recovery programs should be more rigorously tested to understand their downstream consequences for vulnerable populations before they are delivered and scaled. In disaster recovery you usually only get one shot to do it right... so try to do it right from the beginning.

Recovery justice is more than just a hashtag. It is a framework for understanding how disasters impact people differently across society, and for improving the survival of businesses and communities most vulnerable to disruption. This means moving away from simply spreading our limited resources far and wide, but working with vulnerable populations to take control of the process and target resources to them for equitable outcomes.