Building back better: UK public engagement & priorities in the COVID-19 era

Soomin Oh

Dec 11, 2020

Building back better: UK public engagement & priorities in the COVID-19 era

Originally introduced by the United Nations in 2005, ‘Build Back Better’ (BBB) refers to post-disaster reconstruction and recovery response. Now repurposed for the COVID-19 pandemic, the aim of BBB is twofold: first, to reconstruct countries and communities to pre-disaster status (‘build back’), recovering livelihoods, economies, and the environment, and second, to build more resilient, safer, and sustainable communities (‘better’). BBB now sits firmly at the forefront of public discussion around COVID-19 – particularly in the UK – as a kind of mission statement for pursuing sustainable and resilient recovery in both domestic and international spheres.

But how has the pandemic, and the call to action to ‘build back better’ impacted the public’s priorities for development cooperation? And how can the aid sector respond to and engage with the public’s outlook? What words and frames for ‘building back better’ resonate most with the public? In this three-part series, we explore the latest findings from the Development Engagement Lab around the public’s interpretation of ‘building back better’ when it comes to development cooperation.

In part one, we interpret the results of a recent DEL survey of the UK public to address these questions. Two findings in particular impact the aid sector. First, the public’s priorities haven’t changed: The public continue to prioritise water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and health issues. If anything, it seems COVID-19 has only reinforced WASH as a top priority. Second, the less engaged public prefer pandemic-adjacent activities (WASH, health, research on infectious diseases) whereas the more engaged prioritise longer-term issues, including environmental protection for the developing world.

The differences in priorities by engagement illustrates a need to understand the audience as well as their time horizons for expecting progress.

Based on these findings, we make suggestions about how the development sector can tailor interpretations of ‘building back better,’ depending on their organisation’s work and the segments of the public they hope to reach.

COVID-19 and priorities for development

In a DEL survey, fielded in September 2020, we asked a nationally representative sample of over 8,000 UK adults which areas they feel are most important in helping developing countries prepare and respond to future pandemics. The respondents were given a list of areas of investment to choose from: water/sanitation/hygiene, research on infectious disease prevention and planning, social protection and economic safety nets, universal healthcare and health systems, decent work and quality jobs, and environmental protection, biodiversity and sustainability.

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows that top priorities include ‘investing in water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure’ (24%) and ‘investing in universal healthcare and health systems’ (19%). Priorities are similar across socio-demographic groups, including age, party identification, and the level of education. These priorities are intuitive: the pandemic has shown that many developing countries severely lack water and sanitation infrastructure for proper handwashing, and/or an adequate health system to treat the ever-increasing number of patients.

As mentioned, these priorities haven’t shifted since pre-pandemic times. In a DEL survey from September 2019, 35% of the UK public ranked water first, and 24% of UK respondents ranked health first. What the survey results from pre-COVID and COVID priorities in development indicate are a sustained interest in supporting WASH and health in the global south.

Where the connection between health and WASH to other important sectors, like gender equality and the environment, has previously been less clear, COVID-19 has brought the interconnectedness of development work into stark relief. For instance, in some developing countries it mainly falls to women to fetch water and maintain the household supply – a job that’s become more onerous and even dangerous as the disease spreads through communities. The connection between environmental impact and unequal access to safe drinking water is also more apparent in the stark light of the pandemic. For instance, the lack of adequate drinking water in the developing world has forced the poor to rely on bottled water for drinking, contributing to the global surge in plastic pollution.

Framing for the public

The data also highlights how the sector can frame the cause of sustainable development. First, it is worth noting that the public has expressed a keen interest in the sustainability of the recovery (Figure 2). When asked how they would like the government to prioritize rebuilding the society and economy, 26% of the public responded that they want ‘sustainability’ to be prioritized, followed by the 22% who prioritized well-being. It is curious that resilience, the principal component of BBB, is ranked low, with only 9% of the public placing it as a priority of the government – but this warrants its own dedicated blog! Given the keen interest of the public in a sustainable recovery, public engagement should address how development cooperation could help build sustainable interventions over the long term, rather than simply in the aftermath of the crisis.

Figure 2

There is also an opportunity here to tailor communications around ‘Building Back Better’ to the most relevant segments of the population. In Figure 3, we show priorities listed by DEL’s engagement segmentation (see here for more details about DEL’s segmentation). What we observe is that less-engaged members of the public (totally disengaged, marginally engaged, and transactionally engaged) place greater value on explicitly pandemic-related activities, namely WASH, health, disease research, prevention and planning. The more engaged (purposively engaged, fully engaged, and negatively engaged) want to invest in ‘environmental protection, biodiversity, and sustainability’ after WASH and health. The solution to investing in the environment, biodiversity and sustainability is a longer-term, systematic solution to ‘building back better’ when it comes to developing countries. The differences in priorities by engagement illustrates a need to understand the audience as well as their time horizons for expecting progress.

Figure 3

COVID-19 highlights the inadequacy of WASH and health access in the developing world, and the UK public recognises these problems as priorities for building back better. The development sector should seize this opportunity to engage with the public to push the momentum on WASH, health and the wider web of related development and humanitarian concerns in order to not let this crisis go to waste.

Written by

Soomin Oh

Soomin Oh

Soomin Oh is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Duke University and a pre-doctoral research fellow at Development Engagement Lab. Her research focuses on the political economy of development, specifically the variations in subnational allocation of public goods in the developing world, and has worked on impact evaluations of development projects in collaboration with USAID and the World Bank.

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