So many people—from U.S. President Joe Biden to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to World Bank Managing Director Axel van Trotsenburg—have been exhorting us to “Build Back Better” after the COVID-19 pandemic that it is worth examining what is implied by the phrase.

First, it suggests that the way we were “building” before the pandemic was not good. This is certainly true in many developing countries where health systems were not delivering for the poor; the education system was not teaching students; and over 60 percent of the labor force was in the informal sector. While the reasons for these problems are manifold, they have one feature in common: they have existed for a long time. The second implication of “Build Back Better” is that somehow, in the wake of COVID-19, it will be possible to relax some of these long-standing constraints. But if one of the reasons for these problems is that there has not been a political consensus around the reforms needed to, say, improve health services for the poor, learning outcomes for schoolchildren, and employment in the formal sector, why would that consensus be possible now? How will COVID-19 shift the political equilibrium so that these much needed reforms take place?

In at least three areas, there may be answers to these questions.

Health. One reason why health systems have persistently failed poor people is that the elites in these countries often go abroad for their health care.  This “outward medical tourism” meant that the political elites were able to neglect domestic health systems.

Inequality. In many developing countries, inequality is high and rising. Fast-growing countries such as China and India have seen sharp increases in inequality. Middle-income countries have the largest numbers of poor people. As Owen Barder and others have suggested, this implies that poverty is not due to lack of development of the country as a whole but to the marginalization of certain groups within a country.

Transparency. Over the last 20 years, there has been considerable evidence that the publication and dissemination of information—transparency—can improve development outcomes.

Read the full article about building back after COVID-19 by Shanta Devarajan at Brookings.