Build a better slogan

I’m going to vote for Joe Biden for pretty much the same reason Bernie Sanders is: because the only other option is allowing an incompetent kleptocratic murderer and his racist authoritarian movement to remain in power and make everyone’s lives worse.

But that kind of choice is bound to come with some indigestion. Here’s mine:

Those of you who lived with me through the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or read my book detailing the catastrophically bad U.S.-led international response to it, can join me in banging our heads against our desks.

“Build Back Better” was Bill Clinton’s slogan throughout the shambolic recovery—a failure which he led, and thus was more responsible for than any other individual.

I reached out to Biden’s press team to ask if that’s where they got the name of his economic disaster recovery plan. No one got back to me. But it seems likely for several reasons, not least the fact that Biden was vice president during the earthquake and all that followed. (Jill Biden visited Haiti with Michelle Obama in the spring of 2010, just after Bill and Hillary Clinton co-hosted a U.N. donors’ conference at which the slogan was repeated endlessly.)

If this was just a tone-deaf coincidence, likely to be noticed mainly by a few million Haitians (some of whom vote in Florida, but still), I would have kept this observation to the occasional dyspeptic tweet. But I fear it might deeper than that. “BBB,” as I regret to inform you it is formally known in the disaster response world, is a persistent idea with a bad track record.

The Long Version

Real heads know Clinton didn’t come up the slogan for Haiti. He premiered it a few years earlier, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had tapped Clinton to be the UN’s “Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief,” a job focused mostly on public relations and encouraging foreign governments to support national-led efforts—particularly in the hardest-hit areas of Indonesia. In 2006, Clinton’s UN office published a short report on the lessons they had learned titled “Key Propositions for Building Back Better,” and the slogan was born.

Many of the principles outlined in the report sounded fairly good on paper: “Recovery must promote fairness and equity.” “Local governments must be empowered to manage recovery efforts.” And so on. The last one was probably the most influential: “Good recovery must leave communities safer by reducing risks and building resilience.”

The problem was that “on paper” was the only place those principles seemed to exist. “While the term ‘build back better’ was used widely in Aceh, it meant vastly different things to different actors,” the humanitarian response expert Lilianne Fan wrote. Basically, everyone involved—governments, aid groups, and other non-governmental organizations—could interpret it to mean whatever they wanted, which was generally along the lines of please give us more money to do what we were already doing.

Clinton next went to Haiti for the U.N. in May 2009 to spearhead the international response to a different disaster: a series of four back-to-back(-to-back-to-back) tropical storms and hurricanes. He brought the slogan with him: “Last year’s natural disasters took a great toll, but Haiti’s government and people have the determination and ability to ‘build back better,’ not just to repair the damage done but to lay the foundations for the long term sustainable development that has eluded them for so long.”

The earthquake struck eight months later.

Gwo chen tombe

It would take many Long Versions to detail what went wrong, and which parts of it the Clintons were responsible for, in Haiti’s awful recovery. I covered a lot of it in a long 2015 feature for Politico Magazine, and of course the book.

Suffice it to say: In ten years of searching, neither I nor anyone else has found credible evidence that either Clinton stole aid money meant for Haiti, through their foundation or otherwise. Rather, they used their extraordinarily powerful positions to repeat the same old neoliberal strategies of labor and resource extraction, privatization, and elite/corporate control that had made Haiti so vulnerable to a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in the first place.

That was where “Build Back Better” came in: to make what was old seem new. It sounded good on its surface—as Fan has written, “Who would want to build back worse?” But it raised questions that no one wanted to address: “What exactly does ‘better’ look like? Better for whom, where, how?”

In the case of a vulnerable place like Haiti—preyed on and picked over since its African-born-and-descended founders overthrew slavery and the French in 1804—the desire to “reduce risk” spoke more to the wishes of the responders than the survivors. If Haitians and other vulnerable people would stop dying in disaster after disaster, foreign governments like the United States wouldn’t have to spend so much time responding to them, or dealing with refugees, or answering questions about why we hadn’t fixed things the last time. We could sit around and enjoy our plunder from the developing world in peace.

JB’s BBB

So what does Biden mean by “Build Back Better?” In his July 9 speech announcing the program, Biden used a framing familiar to disaster capitalists all over the world, selling the overlapping COVID-19, systemic racism, and worsening climate crises Trump has saddled us all with as an opportunity for investment.

On the surface, much of the plan seems good: $2 trillion for infrastructure. Expanding childcare. Investing in American manufacturing. Closing the racial wealth gap and expanding affordable housing.

But digging in more deeply, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews did, the plan gets Clintonianly fuzzy—which is better than Trumpianly predatory and mendacious, but that’s a low bar. The childcare plan involves some kind of means-testing to determine who gets a tax credit and who doesn’t. (It isn’t clear how that will help families who pay little or no income tax.) A lot of Biden’s “Made in All of America” manufacturing plan sounds more like a template for a future plan (“retool and revitalize … through specific incentives, additional resources, and new financing tools”) than a proposal itself.

(His promise to use some of the infrastructure money to build “the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world” is catnip to me—MORE AND FASTER TRAINS PLEASE—but sounds wildly optimistic considering how far behind the rest of the world our awful train system is.)

Further, as Matthews points out, it is not clear that Biden has a plan to get his plans through Congress.

Since so much of his plan is still vague and aspirational, the name he gives it is even more important. Is Biden’s take on BBB just going to be the same old structures with new labels? Will everyone involved be free to interpret it however they wish, selling whatever they were selling before as long as they throw in a reference to “building back better?” Is his goal to use governmental power for just a short time, however much he can, then leave vulnerable communities on their own?

And if, as in Haiti, we don’t just end up worse off, but not rebuilt at all, who will be held responsible?

If I get answers to those questions, I will be sure to share them with all of you. Sign up to get The Long Version in your inbox:

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Top photo by me.

Photo of Biden by AP.