Harnessing Change in a Crisis: Lessons from The Recovery Project

Since April, The Recovery Project — launched by Canada 2020, Global Progress and the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy — has been convening Canadian and global expertise on policy solutions for a post-COVID recovery. The IFSD’s Helaina Gaspard offers the key takeaways from that process ahead of September’s Recovery Summit.


Helaina Gaspard

August 6, 2020

In political science, historical institutionalist theory posits that institutions, e.g. rules, policies, laws, conventions, will persist on their established path until diverted from that path dependency by critical junctures. It is in these moments when institutions can be reset as struggles for power and competitions of ideas ensue among actors.Crises can be critical junctures that present opportunities for major change, unanticipated or not, positive or negative. From the construction of the welfare state in post-Depression New Deal programs in the US to the multilateral institutions erected post-World War II to the reformulation of international security practices post-9/11, the decisions made during and following crises can set state institutions on unexpected trajectories.

As the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for life in Canada and the world, including the necessity for innovative policy responses at every level, began to emerge earlier this year, Canada 2020, Global Progress, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD) at the University of Ottawa — where I work as Director, Governance and Institutions — launched The Recovery Project, a collaborative effort to bring forward ideas focused on long-term recovery. It is about thinking ahead to the opportunities and challenges beyond the emergency response to the pandemic. It is about bringing forward a variety of perspectives and ideas to reinvigorate economies, enhance institutions and make better policy choices.

Recovery is about more than economic growth and output. It is about trust and confidence in the systems and structures that countries have built, their resiliency and reliability to respond to future challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions affect every aspect of daily life. In aggregate, these repercussions are affecting economies, testing state institutions, stressing health care systems and the people they serve.

The response to our call for input from experts — ranging from Canadian economists Tiff Macklem (named Governor of the Bank of Canada shortly after his Recovery Project webinar) and Kevin Page to International Rescue Committee President David Miliband to former prime minister Paul Martin to his former UK counterpart Gordon Brown to former Irish president and UNHCR commissioner Mary Robinson and many more — has been both heartening and enlightening. Hearing from and engaging with former heads of government, current and former ministers, thought leaders, senior public servants, and experts from Canada, the United States, Europe and beyond, it is evident that the months ahead might not be easy, but that this crisis has presented an opportunity to improve current practices.

The impacts of the pandemic have been felt in a range of different ways. Some have tragically lost loved ones. Many are struggling day-to-day with job loss and income depletion, others in essential services are overworked — all of which impacts mental health and wellness. Countries like Lebanon, beset by new disasters amid this crisis, are reeling under the weight of cascading hardship.

Decision makers, policy makers, analysts and citizens should carefully consider all actions that are proposed, which are taken, what we know about them, how they are being monitored, and what results they are expected to yield (and, crucially, in the short-, medium- and long-terms).

What responses have states presented to the challenges at hand?  How do their approaches compare? What lessons can be extracted from their experiments in addressing recovery? No single government, corporation, actor, or political perspective should reset the course of transformation rationalized by the pandemic.

After months of invaluable input in our webinars, podcasts and live events from some of the best policy minds in Canada and beyond, four broad areas for action have emerged: economic and fiscal policy; public health; governance and institutions; and international relations and cooperation.

  1. Economic and fiscal challenges — after the immediate health crisis — have been the focus of discussions surrounding responses to the pandemic. Whether the recovery will be v-shaped or u-shaped or even l-shaped, the suite of available tools to ease the pain of the economic shock, and considerations for medium-term planning have been discussed. While this may not be the time for spending cuts, responsible spending with relevant tracking is always important. Governments should not be indifferent to the outcomes of their spending and the means by which they are achieved, as they impact public confidence and their own political viability. With major spending ongoing, domestic policy areas such as infrastructure and revitalizing rural communities can present opportunities to foster growth and sustainable development. This is a time to fund ‘shovel- worthy’ (not just shovel-ready) projects with the intention of building a better future, not helicoptering money out for the sake of it.
  2. Public health extends beyond medical services, from the race to test and bring vaccines to market, to the differentiated ways Canadians experience the health system. Canadians uphold our publicly funded health care system as a point of pride and rightfully so. But its role and capacity for response is not stagnate. As demographics shift, pressures on our health care system will change. A shift in focus toward prevention and well-being (in addition to illness treatment) would serve us well into the future.
  3. On the governance front, democracy and institutions have been leveraged differently around the world during the pandemic. While some states have centralized power in the short-term to organize a cohesive response to the pandemic, others have used the crisis as an opportunity to permanently centralize power and curtail human rights. With one eye to crisis response and one eye to the future, the ongoing integrity of liberal democracy and its benefits cannot be taken for granted and should be factored in to policy decisions — especially fiscal and economic policy, governance and international relations choices.
  4. On international relations, no country has been left untouched by the pandemic’s health and economic ramifications. COVID-19 has revealed and underscored the depth and dependency of international relations, not only between states, but in business and even social movements.  The pandemic has underscored the need for international cooperation on core issues like public health, especially, when traditional leaders such as the United States under the Trump administration have stepped back from the international scene. Lessons from the frontlines of various countries highlight the differentiated responses and their ripple effects across borders. From the movement of migrant workers within India to our own border restrictions with the US, the weight of internal and external borders has been reified. The variance in all forms of responses (e.g. economic, health, etc.) offers lessons from which to learn, practices that can be emulated, and considerations for Canada’s future role on the global stage.

Underpinning these four themes is trust. Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among others, highlighted that those countries that have managed the pandemic most effectively benefit from higher levels of public trust in state institutions. We need not look much further than the patchwork of responses in the United States to validate that hypothesis.  While confidence has decreased globally (see the Edelman Trust Barometer), we are fortunate to have benefited in Canada from collective confidence in the state apparatus and those who serve in it while navigating a response to COVID-19.

There is much work to be done to foster resiliency in economies, public health systems, and state institutions. Decisive action and leadership with global cooperation will be necessary for long-term progress.

Over five days, from September 14-17, The Recovery Summit — a virtual global conference hosted by Global Progress and Canada 2020 and born out of the Recovery Project — will be held in advance of the UN General Assembly. It will be an opportunity for key progressive government, business, academic and philanthropic leaders to discuss the central pillars of a global recovery effort.

We have created the very institutions through which the pandemic is being managed; now is the time to improve them.

Policy contributing writer Helaina Gaspard is Director, Governance and Institutions for the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD).