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The evolving higher education system is Somalia. In conversation with Guglielmo Giordano, Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation in Mogadishu

War and conflict have systemic impacts on higher education: there is physical damage as universities are attacked or occupied by armed groups; loss of life and forced displacement of academic staff and students; and institutional weakening as post-conflict financial resources are allocated to basic services first. Although this is slowly changinghigher education systems are often not a priority during post-conflict recovery.

So, how can we support higher education systems damaged by years of conflict? In this blog, I suggested a portfolio approach, where different funders support experimental solutions in different areas of the higher education system. The key is to see these experiments as a portfolio of interlinked initiatives that, together, and in close collaboration with policy actors at federal and state level, can help accelerate the strengthening of governance and research capabilities of the higher education system, not only individual universities.

To discuss these ideas and problems in the higher education system in Somalia, as well as the role of Italian development cooperation, I reached out to Guglielmo Giordano, the Director of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation at the Italian Embassy in Mogadishu

Arnaldo Pellini – Let’s start with your background. Can you tell me about your experience in international development and your work in Somalia?

Guglielmo Giordano – I started working for development cooperation as a volunteer in South America immediately after my graduation, for almost three years. Then I worked for nearly 10 years in Haiti with the United Nations (i.e. FAO). Later, I was appointed by Italian Cooperation (at that time IC was under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and remained for almost 16 years at HQ as a regional desk officer for the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran and Iraq) to which were added, in the latest period, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since February 2015, I’ve been serving in Somalia.

AP – What are the policy priorities of the Italian development assistance to Somalia?

GG – The action of Italian development cooperation in Somalia considers several factors, among which it is useful to recall the alignment with national development plans, cooperation with local authorities, and coordination with other donors. This said, the very first priority is enhancing employment, as 75 percent of the population is under 39 years. Contributing to the employment of this huge mass of young human resources means to contribute to stabilisation. Somalia needs, in a very short term, a new generation of managers and officials.

Bilateral action is necessarily limited due to the extreme fragility and unreliability of security conditions. The bilateral activities are therefore, so far, limited to the important commitment of contributing to the reconstruction and adaptation of the infrastructure of the Somali National University (SNU). This support has evolved from an initial phase of exclusive professional updating of the teaching staff to the current infrastructural support. It is useful to remember that Italy is currently the only donor involved in the development of state university education for the formation of a new managerial class and officials.

A second program is the creation of a digitalised archive (Somalia Archive) that will make the important number of documents present in Italian archives (audio, video and paper) accessible to everybody via the internet. A second phase is now underway, aimed at networking the body of Somali legislation, which is currently unavailable in the country.

An integral part of the bilateral action of Italian Cooperation in the country is humanitarian and emergency aid, mostly carried out thanks to the collaboration and involvement of Italian Civil Society Organizations present in the territory. This ensures an excellent cost/benefit ratio and enhances the Italian Cooperation System in Somalia.

On the multilateral action front, the thematic focus is then maintained on employment through activities aimed at professional training, and in consideration of the widespread youth unemployment and irregular migration through dangerous routes and trips. For this reason, support to the development of primary sectors, such as agriculture, zootechnics and fishing is foreseen, together with commitment in the private sector for the development of processing and export activities, promoting the full participation of women.

Even when intervening in emergency situations, an approach linked to development activities is preferred, with a view to improving food security indicators through the use of appropriate agricultural techniques and the construction or rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure. This is intended to promote resilience building for the local population, whose vulnerability to recurring adverse climatic phenomena (climate change) remains unfortunately too high.

Another sector of essential importance on which the Italian Cooperation’s action continues to focus is the development of infrastructures, in particular productive ones (ports and airports). This is done through support to the multi-year program of the African Development Bank and other essential initiatives to foster the recovery of the local economy. It is aimed at economic and commercial integration within the country (north-south axis) and fostering regional trade, in particular with Ethiopia (east-west axis) and with countries of the region.

The health sector is one of the traditional sectors of excellence of the Italian commitment in Somalia. This is of primary importance in a country that is among the lowest placed in the world for quality of life indicators. In this sector, investments are made with an ‘all-inclusive’ approach, considering both the provision of medical, essential and emergency services and the rehabilitation of health facilities. This is an essential requirement for the provision of services, with a focus on maternal and child health and the abolition of traditional practices harmful to women’s health, such as female genital mutilation.

In line with the priorities of the Somali Government set out during the Somalia Partnership Forum (Mogadishu, 1–2 October 2019), the primary importance of promoting the rule of law and strengthening government institutions is recognised as part of the broader ‘forces generation’ discourse in Somalia. The AICS intervenes with programs for the advancement of rule of law, for the promotion of human rights, of which women’s rights and children’s rights are an integral part, and in the consolidation of democratic processes. This is in order to contribute to institutional strengthening for greater stability and peace and promoting long-term development.

Finally, confirming the financial commitments made within the funds managed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, support is maintained for the process of institutional and regulatory strengthening necessary for macro-economic development. This, combined with progress in the rule of law, respect for human rights and respect for democratic processes, is among the conditions that can enable Somalia to access debt cancellation.

AP – Italy has had a long presence in Somalia. When researching for the report for SIDA I learned that in the 1950s Italy was involved in establishing some of the first semi-professional schools for high-school graduates. These included the School of Politics and Administration (1950), the Higher Institute of Economics and Law (1954) and the Scuola Magistrale, etc.  How has Italian support to the higher education system evolved since the end of the civil war in 2004? What have the priorities been?

GG – Italian support to the Somali National University has deep roots of more than 50 years and is still today the main reference for the future readjustment of the Somali university system. It should be remembered that Italy is currently the only financier of higher education in Somalia.

There was already Italian support in 1954, with the creation of the Istituto Superiore di Discipline Giuridiche, Economiche e Sociali (Higher Institute of Legal, Economic and Social Disciplines), an institute that produces almost all of the Somali intelligentsia currently in the country and around the world.

In 1969, the Somali Government, in collaboration with the University of Padua, established the faculties of Law and Economics, and later in 1973, the Italian Cooperation and the Federal Government of Transition of Somalia established the Somali National University (SNU). This had the faculties of Medicine, Agriculture, Veterinary, Engineering, Chemistry and Geology, and later, Languages. 

In the 1970s, the Italian Government donated 90 hectares of land to SNU in Gaheyr, within the territory of the Municipality of Mogadishu, on which the academic structure called Campus Gaheyr (at the time financed by EU funds) was established. In the design, carried out by renowned architects Quadroni and Dierna, the campus included the Rectorate, buildings housing six faculties, services and accommodation for students and teachers. The campus was inaugurated in 1985, however at the end of December 1990, activities were interrupted by the outbreak of the civil war and could only continue through forms of assistance to Somali refugee teachers and students in Italy. Students who graduated from the SNU travelled all over the world, occupying responsible professions and becoming highly respected managers or professors. Most of the Somali presidents graduated from the SNU. It must be stressed that such a program should be considered the biggest effort of Italian cooperation in its history. 

Subsequently a scholarship program funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs enabled to continue the collaboration and exchange between Italian universities and SNU.

Following the establishment of the Federal Government of Somalia, and therefore greater stability in the country, in 2014 the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the first of the new programs to support SNU, a financial contribution to the realization of the project ‘Somali Web University’ promoted by the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’. As part of the project, which is still in progress, the Italian-Somali Scientific Committee, hosted by the Italian Geographic Society, was set up, with the participation of several Italian universities (Bari, Florence, Roma Tor Vergata, Roma Tre, Pavia, Trieste, Politecnico di Milano, Politecnico di Torino) and in strategic coordination with the Conference of Rectors of the Universities of Italy. Another two programs, proposed by the University of Roma III and including 16 scholarships for the first SNU graduates, followed in rapid succession, again as programs exclusively related to the training and updating of Somali teachers in Italy, as well as some instrumental equipment (technical-scientific laboratories).

In the meantime, the situation in Mogadishu has gradually evolved, first with the ability of the SNU to secure a temporary physical location downtown, with some classrooms, teachers and already two sections of students admitted to the preparatory semesters, and then, in July 2017, with the return of the Gaheyr Campus, occupied by AMISOM for about 10 years and returned with about 15 additional buildings (barracks and offices of AMISOM). These are now used as classrooms and temporary offices. 

It was therefore deemed necessary and feasible to move to a more concrete phase of real reconstruction of the campus and, to this end, the best Italian engineering institution, the Politecnico di Milano, became involved. As part of this project, PoliMi, in collaboration with SNU, will define the general master plan of the campus, and will technically support the renovation of the remaining faculty blocks (Law, Economics, Political Science), as well as the construction of the new rectorate and new buildings that will host the other faculties of the campus (Veterinary, Science, Engineering). The program also plans to give continuity to the scholarships program in the years to come.

AP – An interesting finding from our study that separates Somalia from other post-conflict countries is that the number of universities has boomed since the mid-2000s. In other countries the higher education systems have struggled to re-emerge from conflict because of a lack of resources. What do you think are the drivers behind this rapid increase in the number of universities in Somalia and Somaliland?

GG – Even though there are, at least nominally, more than 120 private universities in the country (or so they claim), there are no systematic data to assess the level and real situation of tertiary education in Somalia. These are mostly paid technical vocational schools, very often of an integralist religious matrix and with low or limited female participation. Our intervention responds to a specific need of the Somali Government for a rebirth of the SNU as accessible, public and secular, and an alternative to the above-mentioned institutions. In this light, and also in light of the progress made by the Somali Government in terms of stability and security in the country, in October 2018 the Minister of Higher Education invited the Italian Government to sign the Scientific, Cultural, Technical Convention between Italy and Somalia, the latest version of which dates back to 1970.

AP – In your opinion, what are the main problems in the higher education system and where do you think there is greater political room to address some of these problems?

GG – The whole higher education system is managed by the private sector without any actual control by the government. A few years ago, a unique final test for high schools was approved, which represented a great step forward. The monitoring of the whole education system is mandatory, in order to assure a homogeneous quality level from the primary to the tertiary level. Higher quality physical institutions and facilities, demanding more preparation of the teachers and professors means more investment. But this will permit the users (students and their families) to focus their investment (money and time) on something valuable. Currently, too many institutions are just ‘typography’ of certificates and diplomas, without any actual value.

AP – Where is the focus of the Italian development assistance to the higher education system?

GG – To support the SNU to reform its curricula to join the international educational university system. To improve research capacity, with the aid of Italian universities for the moment, but the final aim is to join the international research network, 

AP – Supporting the capacity development of academic staff and researchers is important, but it addresses only one area of the higher education system’s capability issues. How do you see development partners coming together and collaborating with the government to address the problems with a systems approach?

GG – The master plan we are preparing has the ambition of serving other donors to discover their opportunities to invest in the SNU. More than 10 years ago, Italy was the founder of the ISTVS in Sheikh, Somaliland. This is an international tertiary institute for veterinary sciences and agronomy in dried land. Now, the Institute is also funded by Denmark and the EU. 

The Italian cooperation is very conscious of not doing everything alone and a bilateral partnership has to be considered as an impediment to the full expansion of the SNU. Nobody in any sector can imagine standing alone in the present globalised world. The Italian initiative must be considered as facilitating the joint working of a European initiative, where Europe has dialogue with our Somali partners and institutions.

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What is a system?

I am working with some colleagues at the EdTech Hub on defining EdTech systems. We are reviewing general systems literature as well as literature on systems more specific to EdTech. I went back to read something I wrote on knowlede to policy systems (or evidence ecosystems) three years ago in the book I co-edited, Knowledge, Politics, and Policymaking in Indonesia.

I quoted Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and her definition of systems:

‘Donella Meadows defines a system as ‘an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something’. In brief, a system consists of elements, interconnections and a purpose. The elements are the easiest parts to see, because they are visible and tangible. In the knowledge system, elements include, for example, universities, policy research institutes, policy analysis units, ministries, local governments, civil servants, researchers and data scientists.

Interconnections are the relationships that hold these elements together. It is more difficult to understand these interconnections and why elements are linked as they are. Interconnections often reflect information flows. The government, for example, needs information about the economy, social problems, education and health to decide on policies and fund programmes. The purpose is the hardest part of a system to spot, as it may not be articulated orally or in writing. The purpose must be deduced from behaviour, rather than rhetoric or stated goals, for example, a commitment to use more research-based evidence in policymaking followed by the establishment of new funding mechanisms for think tanks and policy research organisations.

Changes in a system require mapping and understanding all three aspects of the system. Government interventions and development programmes often focus on changes to the elements (e.g. new research organisations, trained civil servants, etc.) − which usually have the least impact on the system but are easier to measure and report on. Some interventions venture further, looking at ways to change or influence interconnections in the system (e.g. forums between researchers and policymakers, coalitions among advocacy organisations and knowledge producers, etc.). This can have a positive impact on the system but may not last. Very few interventions venture so far as to try to influence or change the system’s purpose, which is the level capable of instituting the most profound changes to the system.’

Photo credit: Tiplada Mekvisan on Unsplash

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The real world of evidence-informed policymaking

Extracts from Dominic Cummings wanted to rewire the British state, but he needed to change the thinking of those in charge by Sam Freedman (Read the full article)

“Lord Fulton’s report on the civil service, back in 1968, noted the lack of specialists, particularly those with scientific training, in key roles; the tendency to rely on generalists and the absence of modern project management techniques.”

“One reason the problems identified by Fulton are so endemic is the lack of incentive within the civil service to reform. But there’s another, bigger reason, that Cummings largely ignores: it suits the way politicians like to work. The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament. Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.”

“There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China. They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques. The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.”

“For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting. In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.”

“Not only are policies typically driven by political imperatives rather than evidence but they’re not even internally coherent within departments, let alone between them. Again, this is not a function of civil service failure so much as incompatible ministerial agendas. “

“As Cummings has acknowledged in his blogs, this centralisation of power has not been matched by a growth in the administrative capacities of central government. Instead, increasingly, Whitehall has become reliant on procuring large private companies to provide services.”

Photo credit: Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash

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The 72.000.000 question

The US presidential election, our digital future, and a question for the friends at ODI’s Digital Societies programme

A week has passed since Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the US presidential election. Donald Trump has not yet conceded and has launched a flurry of probably ineffectual court cases. Votes are being recounted in Georgia but they are not going to change the outcome.

I listened to many commentaries since the election: NYT’s The Daily, the Guardian’s Politics Weekly and Today in Focus, Talking Politics with David Runciman. They all agree that the support to Donald Tump has not changed since 2016, it has even increased. On the other hand, a huge number of Democrats have cast their vote for Biden and Harris which has tipped the election in their favour. That shows also in the popular vote where Biden has received ca. 77.000.000 votes vs. the 72.000.000 for Trump.

During the last few days I found myself thinking about those 72.000.000 people who voted Trump. The large part of those voters are older, white, non-college educated, and living smaller towns and rural areas. They are angry. They believe that the economic and political system has let them down. Their factories have closed. Their jobs have gone overseas or have been taken by immigrants. Trump listens to them and speaks to their anger and fears.

The economy of today (and tomorrow) is marked by an increase in productivity and a decrease in the demand for labour. This trend is pushed by digital technologies and automation and will only accelerate during this century. So, what will happen to those 72.0000.000? Early retirements for tens of millions? Not likely. Tens of millions of bullshit jobs, in the word of the late Prof. David Graeber? Probably.

If this is the trend, are we going to see more populist and right wing leaders being voted in office as hundreds of million of citizen are left stranded by the digital revolution around the world?

I realise this is quite a bleak view of the future, but that number, the 72.000.000, left me with questions about our democratic future which are not simple to answer.

So, I turn to the friends at ODI’s Digital Societies programme: what do you think?

Photo credit: Trump rally in Wildwood NJ by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash.

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Preparing the governance systems of tomorrow: researching megatrends. A conversation with Elina Kiiski-Kataja and Tony Addison at the Oodi Library in Helsinki

What does it mean for a government to invest and research megatrends? How does it help to prepare the governance system of tomorrow? To what extent are megatrends taken into consideration in international development research and programming?  I have met Elina Kiiski– Kataja and Tony Addison at the Oodi Library in Helsinki to discuss these questions.

Research and analysis help cast light on the phenomenon of megatrends. Megatrends are going to have long-term effects on governments, societies and economies. Some of these effects are already visible in our societies. The Finnish innovation agency, SITRA, has launched a page on its website called Megatrends 2020 to open up a discussion about the trends that will have the biggest impact on our future. The page explores tensions such as: tensions between the transformation of work and the need to ensure an equitable livelihood for all; pursuing a sustainable versus a restorative economy; the widespread use of technology and its effects on inequality; the politics of having corporations or governments deciding on technology; the falling costs of renewable energy; centralised policy decision-making versus broad technology-enabled citizen engagement; and many more. 

Megatrends give rise to disciplines such as futures studies and foresight, which represent an attempt to forecast technological advancements and other environmental trends. They represent a specific form of evidence that enables governments to predict how people will live and work in the future. 

Governments, mainly in high-income countries, and large corporations invest and use foresight analysis and megatrends as a source of evidence to inform strategic (policy) decisions. The Finnish government has established in 2015 the project to reform the Government’s steering framework (also called  OHRA). The multinational Shell is well known for their expertise with foresight and scenarios.

But to what extent are megatrends taken into consideration in international development research and programming? 

I discussed these questions during a video call with Elina Kiiski-Kataja, Director of Research and Foresight at Ellun Kanat and former leading foresight specialist at the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, and Tony Addison, until recently the chief economist and now non-resident senior research fellow with UNU-WIDER in Helsinki and a professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen’s Development Economics Research Group.

Arnaldo Pellini – Tony, does international development research and programming consider megatrends such as the one Elina and SITRA have been working on? After all, international development should be guided by the SDGswhich look at 2030.

Tony Addison

Tony – My sense is that megatrends, in the way it is used in the foresight knowledge community, is not embedded in the way the international development community operates. For sure, there are a plethora of international reports, especially published by international agencies and international NGOs, and those that embed the latest results of international research are very thorough, especially when they draw upon the sciences: one thinks here, for example, of the climate change assessment reports produced by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the international reports that come out of UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD, are often rather bland and usually confine themselves to a limited set of scenarios – albeit the analysis that is done is thorough, but it is done within a relatively narrow set of future possibilities.

The research community, as found in academia, has become quite narrow in many of its concerns. Within development economics, which is my disciplinary area, the last 20 years has seen a narrowing of focus, with the rise of randomised control trials (RCTs). These try to assess the likely impact of interventions, typically in the areas of education and health care (with more studies of livelihoods projects in recent years). The aim is to inform the design of project interventions and allocation of public spending. This is fine as far as it goes, but they are subject to considerable critique, albeit the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to two of their foremost practitioners has given them considerable status. This is part of a general trend within development economics towards more and more studies that are micro-economic in orientation.

This has meant a gradual drift away from some of the ‘big picture’ thinking that characterised development economics in its early years. For sure, it was sometimes too general, and too utopian in nature – especially in the academic economics community – but at the same time it did try to address some of the very large questions of development, including scenarios for the future. In contrast, among policy makers in East Asia there was an approach that incorporated some elements of foresight knowledge but not necessarily in ways that are evident to us as outside commentators: much of this was done within ministries and government agencies, only sometimes seeing the light of day in published planning documents. 

The SDGs are largely a set of aspirations, with so many goals and targets that countries can ‘pick and mix’ what they wish to go for. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the SDGs are above all a statement of political commitment by UN member states, but they do not provide an analytical framework for thinking about the future. 

Arnaldo – Elina, can you give concrete examples of how megatrends and the analysis that underpin them can inform public policy? After all, public policy is most of the time very short term, if not mainly reactive. At best it is linked to election cycles of four to five years.

Elina Kiiski-Kataja

Elina – In Finland there are several mechanisms that have been developed to tackle the challenge of how public policy could better take into account different drivers and megatrends that affect our society. 

First of all, the Finnish Parliament has a Futures Committee that specialises in foresight and public policy. The committee doesn’t participate in legislative work but of course its members take part in other parliamentary committees alongside the Futures Committee. The Futures Committee acts as an internal think tank in the Parliament and it can have projects on themes that it decides. One of the most important tasks of the Futures Committee is to comment on and approve the Finnish Government’s Report on the Future, that every government produces once every four years on a theme they find important. 

This brings us to the second important characteristic of Finnish public policy and foresight which is the governmental activities and foresight processes. The Finnish ministries conduct foresight activities themselves internally and there is also an active National Foresight Network that brings together different parts of the Finnish institutional foresight processes and aims to bring foresight knowledge closer to decision making. The National Foresight Network functions under the Prime Minister’s office. As mentioned earlier, every four years the government publishes a Report on the Future on a theme it finds important. It goes through the parliamentary process so that the Futures Committee responds to it. 

Finally, Finland has a lot of agencies that hold foresight at the heart of their work. One of them, Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund that was established in 1967 to develop the Finnish society and economy, and it still conducts this activity successfully by educating decision makers and bringing public and private interest groups together to think about the future and do research on the future. It also conducts pilots and projects on themes important for the Finnish future. Another one is Business Finland, which helps Finnish companies to thrive. It does a lot of technology-relevant and business-relevant foresight and work with Finnish companies, helping them to take advantage of opportunities that arise in the changing world. 

So I would say that through institutional settings, futures thinking and megatrends can be actually quite well attached to public policy. And I think it is also worth mentioning that in 1967 Finland was still a developing country that had a difficult history, as it had been only 20 plus years since the end of the war with the Soviets and 40 plus years since the bloody civil war. So in many ways Finland put futures thinking at the heart of its post-war rebuilding strategy. It was also very successful in adapting ideas about the welfare society, that at the time was something very new.

Arnaldo – I have been involved in many projects, working with government organisations in Southeast Asia, which aimed to strengthen the use of evidence and knowledge to inform public policy. In most cases the evidence referred to the here and now, that is, current problems and ways to address them. Thinking about it now, it is as if foresight is not part of many of the different types of evidence that the government can use to inform public policy decisions. 

Elina –  I think that evidence-based decision making is a really important factor when forming quality public policies. However, you are absolutely right in noting that futures thinking very often lacks evidence. Or to put it another way: we usually have a lot of evidence on different megatrends, such as climate change or the fast development of technology. But what we don’t have evidence on usually is how these megatrends affect us in different fields of society and what we should do about it. This is where we need futures thinking, which is mainly the ability to look at developments from different points of view. In my opinion good futures thinking involves three different ways of looking at the phenomenon called futures. The first one is probable futures, which usually consists of data, statistics, etc. So it comes close to evidence-based thinking. Because in the past we had x in the future, it will be very likely that it will develop in to y. But more and more we also need to think about possible futures, which are futures that might surprise us and we need to be able to speculate and think about different scenarios – also unlikely ones. And finally, more and more, we need desirable futures, and then we need visionary thinking that comes close to innovation processes and creative thinking. Because very often also those shaping the future are the ones that build the future they want by their visions and strategic choices. 

Tony – If futures thinking is to be useful to governments, then it needs to be done in ways that yield a very wide range of scenarios, including the downside – such as those that emanate from domestic and external shocks. The latter are hard for most governments to think their way through, because doing so reveals institutional weaknesses in their ability to respond, and these are hard truths that ministers and civil servants don’t necessarily want, at least not to be openly available to the media and public. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, with brutal clarity, weaknesses in policy and institutions right across the developing world (and the developed world as well). There has been little or no scenario analysis of the macro-economic impact of pandemics on public finances, debt, and growth scenarios of low- and middle-income countries. Consequently, countries did not build up fiscal buffers (fiscal savings) and foreign exchange reserves to draw upon in such crises. We are now seeing the results unfolding. 

Arnaldo – I am wondering whether, when a government decides to invest and use foresight analysis to inform strategic policy decisions, it is a sign of a shift in governance attitudes and approaches. It seems to be that investing in predicting the main trends over 30 to 50 years signals acceptance that the systems in which we operate are complete and interconnected, and that addressing public policy problems requires testing and experimenting with solutions. In doing so, we need some sense of where the work and society is moving. This is very different, has noted Paul Cairney, from the linear and rational view of policy making that is a key part of the post-war public policy systems in place today.

Tony – Institutions and think tanks. I don’t think most government departments will have sufficient breadth of disciplinary background, nor the independence to consider unpalatable futures that would lead to questioning of the current policy stance. Governments in the developed world increasingly claim to base policy on evidence. ‘Evidence-based policy’ has been the big mantra of recent years, but I think this has been quite limited in scope and impact within government: the biggest decisions are often the product of political calculation. The United Kingdom over the last decade is a prime example of that. 

Fundamentally, development studies and development policy as practiced and preached by the community of development practitioners is way too optimistic. It is essentially an ‘enlightenment’ project, believing that with enough shared good sense and commitment the world can reach some kind of nirvana in which poverty is ended everywhere, and all good things come to pass. But the success of nations is highly contingent on trends that are not necessarily within their control. If future studies is to have a role in the development space, then it needs to be given a mandate to consider the darker side of development as it establishes scenarios for the future.

Elina – Absolutely. I believe it is starting to loom that the challenges societies are facing are so complex in nature that it is simply impossible to find solutions with linear thinking. However, it is not an easy transformation and it also means that many institutions, such as parties and public policy institutions, must find new ways to operate with these challenges, and conduct research and experimentation. I think part of the problems that western governments are facing today, with difficulties in executing policies efficiently or even forming a government are symptoms of this complexity. But I want to be an optimist and believe that solutions will be found, that in development policy one of the greatest opportunities lies in the potential to develop new solutions for new generations that do not have the same path dependencies that western countries from the previous industrial era have. I think we will see lots of future-oriented policies invented in countries with young populations who have the ability to look boldly to the future.  

Arnaldo – Tony and Elina, thank you very much

If you republish please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini, under a Creative Commons license. You can read the original article here

Cover photo by Michael Meyer on Unsplash