Bluesky-tastic: comparing three future trends papers on the international system and INGOs

Apologies for blog going down over night – now fixed thanks to wonderful blogmaster Eddy. In the meantime, the futureI’ve been catching up with some of the rash of recent 2020/2025 reports, published in the last couple of months, namely two reports for international NGOs: Alex Evans – 2020 Development Futures (for ActionAid) and Trocaire’s Leading Edge 2020 and (just for comparison) the US Government’s National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.

A few impressions: Firstly, there’s lots of common ground, as you’d expect – the shift to a multipolar world; importance of major (and unpredictable) shocks – economy, disease, politics, climate; growing impact of climate change and resource constraints (land, water etc) and demographic shifts, e.g. the ‘youth bulge’ in poor countries, and aging elsewhere. Trocaire and ActionAid both emphasise equity issues, although the ActionAid paper sees it more in response to resource limits (who gets what slice of a shrinking pie), whereas Trocaire talks more traditionally about rising inequality and domestic taxation. The NIC report dwells more on politics and conflict, covering areas like nuclear proliferation that we tend to ignore, and interestingly does not assume that multilateralism will continue to expand, as the other papers seem to do – it points out that many of the emerging powers are actually pretty sceptical about the UN and IMF.

The NIC’s overall message is actually pretty grim: ‘Historically, emerging multipolar systems have been more unstable than bipolar or unipolar ones. Despite the recent financial volatility—which could end up accelerating many ongoing trends—we do not believe that we are headed toward a complete breakdown of the international system, as occurred in 1914-1918 when an earlier phase of globalization came to a halt. However, the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks. Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments, and technological innovation and acquisition, but we cannot rule out a 19th century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion, and military rivalries.’

The NIC also provides intellectual aerobics with four eyecatching scenarios:

1. A World Without the West

2. October Surprise. New York City is hit by a major hurricane linked to global climate change

3. BRICs’ Bust-Up. Conflict breaks out between China and India over access to vital resources.

4. Politics is Not Always Local. Various nonstate networks— NGOs, religious groups, business leaders, and local activists—combine to set the international agenda on the environment and use their clout to elect the UN Secretary General (that sounds fun).

prophetsGoing back to the INGO reports, handily, they both produce a list of ten recommendations, so here’s a comparison

First up, Alex Evans/ActionAid (no resemblance to the guru on the left):

1. Be ready (because shocks will be the key drivers of change). Civil society organisations should put aside a proportion of their campaigning strategies to roll them out rapidly when ten times as much political space opens up overnight, for three weeks only.

2. Talk about resilience (because the poor are in the firing line). Gear up for a massive push on areas like social protection, climate adaptation, peacebuilding, disaster risk reduction and humanitarian assistance

3. Put your members in charge (because they can bypass you)

4. Talk about fair shares (because limits change everything). For 200 years, left and right have disagreed on everything except the indefinite sustainability of rising growth. Resource scarcity and climate change will change the game utterly, putting inequality into a radically new context.

5. Specialise in coalitions (and not just of civil society organisations )

6. Take on the emerging economies (including from within).

7. Brings news from elsewhere (because innovation will come from the edges)

8. Expect failure (and look for the silver lining). Civil society organisations should expect to find their own operations under substantially heightened stress in the decade ahead.

9. Work for poor people, not poor countries (as most of the former are outside the latter) [yep, that Andy Sumner gets everywhere]

10. Be a storyteller (because stories create worldviews)

And Trocaire’s top ten?

1. Do more and better advocacy

2. Ensure downward accountability

3. Become more flexible and responsive

4. Engage with power and politics

5. Build Southern civil society capacity

6. Plan for a changed funding environment [yep, especially if you’re based in Ireland]

7. Develop stronger analysis of the local context

8. Engage more with your own societies [i.e. in the rich home countries of INGOs]

9. Build a global culture of solidarity

10. Promote innovation and technology

How do they compare? I think the ActionAid recommendcations are more genuinely long term and innovative, while the Trocaire list reads more like where we are, or at least should be, right now. But they both have valuable suggestions for aid wonks, whether in INGOs or elsewhere. Overall, I’m slightly alarmed at the level of Groupthink on display in terms of the overlap between these three and the kinds of topics discussed on this blog, but it doesn’t really matter because, as the NIC report helpfully points out, the one common feature of past forecasting exercises is that they have almost invariably proved wrong. Remember the IBM chair’s famous 1943 prediction “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” ? More epically wrong predictions here

And I’m bound to have missed other bluesky exercises, so please send over links to any good ones. Do you think they are actually much help in improving the work of INGOs and others?

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