Economies stagnating. Governments overindebted. The ashes of war impeding progress on international cooperation. A widespread sense of malaise and absence of urgency blocking the mobilization of capital.
Such a narrative could easily describe much of the world in 2022. But it also describes Europe in 1947, a moment of societal doldrums that preceded an unexpected and dramatic shift in policy frames and public narratives, which ushered in a golden age of prosperity. The Marshall Plan played a crucial role back then, and its lessons can help inform a breakthrough Global Sustainability Program (GSP) today.
At the end of 1946, after a rapid post-World War II bounce, European economies started to stagnate at levels of output below those prevailing in 1938. Agricultural output fell by 3 percent in 1947, and industrial output in the third quarter of 1948 was no higher than at the end of 1946. People were hungry and cold; governments were overindebted and had exhausted much of their foreign exchange reserves; and countries were unable to trade with each other.
Like Europe after the war, sustainable development today seems stuck.
Against this backdrop, the Truman administration introduced a European Recovery Program, more commonly known as the Marshall Plan, to underpin U.S. national security by helping Europe recover.
Although there is disagreement as to the quantitative impact of the Marshall Plan, there is no doubt that it changed the European narrative. Eichengreen and Uzan (1992) describe the sentiment in 1947 as one of extreme pessimism caused by shortages of food, fuel, raw materials, and other supply bottlenecks, with governments unable to finance the repair of infrastructure, and businesses unable to access capital to buy raw materials or invest in new factories.