Musing on the SDGs, R4D, and foresight work

I was asked to present to a class of bachelor students at the University of Utrecht on my experiences with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a development practitioner and academic. I got to share the stage with 3 very impressive presenters, and all of us came to a similar point that the challenge of the SDGs is how to operationalize them.

How do we go from where we are to where we want to be?

And of course, there are no easy answers. However, I think I did the students a disservice, by focusing so much on the problems we are confronting, such as

  • lack of information
  • how to define the goals, and then measure and prove progress toward them
  • how do we prioritize different important outcomes
  • how to build consensus among various actors in society with very different agendas, objectives, and perspectives on what is desirable
  • how to foster and coordinate collective action across scales from the household to the globe on a myriad of goals that can be at cross-purposes

All these challenges are real, and the task at hand as presented by the SDGs is an impossible one. However, we must not lose hope. Without ambitious dreams we don’t reach beyond what we already know. I think I did a disservice to the class by focusing so much on what is holding us back, and not highlighting that we are still making progress, even as we make mistakes, and that we are applying and improving methodologies that should enable us to continuously improve the effectiveness of international development. What follows are a few thoughts that I wished I had shared more explicitly with the class.

Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm
– Winston Churchill

While we must recognize that the development policies and interventions we have at our disposal are limited and imperfect, and that we don’t always know the full consequences of using them, we should also recognize that we are not without agency. We now have decades if not centuries of experience in trying to build and improve the world in which we live. Through these often ad hoc and uncoordinated actions we have learned a great deal, even as we may have created new problems while trying to resolve old ones. We have learned many things that generally work, and perhaps just as importantly we have learned a great many things that almost never work.

And while we still see incidences of truly catastrophic policies (e.g. Venezuela), even the most jaded analyst must recognize that humanity has made great leaps in tackling what was for most of our history our greatest threats: hunger, pestilence, and destitution. That we haven’t fully resolved these problems, or the fact that our solutions are proving to be unsustainable due to overuse of natural resources, should not detract from the fact that we have made incredible progress. This progress is evident not just by comparing changes over millennia, but also through changes observed after concentrated and coordinated efforts towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. This should strengthen our resolve that progress is possible, even as it should humble us to recognize that it can be ephemeral and will almost certainly not be smooth. Progress is not self-sustaining, and it will require our continued attention and effort to see it continue.

The field of research for development is at its heart trying to document current and past efforts towards the greater goal of sustainable development. To collect, document, organize, and share our best understanding of the world, and how our actions impact and change it. It works to analyze past assumptions against evidence, to find misconceptions and correct them, and to share the lessons learned in the hope of inoculating us from repeating past mistakes.

My work has contributed to these efforts, by applying our current understanding of the macroeconomy to foresight. I have helped to build and improve computer simulation models that provide a framework to test our assumptions and biases in a transparent and systematic way. In conjunction with the the construction of scenarios of alternative futures, we can ask ourselves and others what would be the consequences of different events or actions, and test the interconnectivity of the complex socioeconomic, political, and environmental systems within which we act. These tools are illustrative and didactic as opposed to predictive. We cannot know the future, however, the doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for many different futures. These tools help to consider various ways in how the future could unfold, and whether our actions (policies, interventions, investments, etc.) are more, or less likely to be effective in achieving our desired outcomes. They suggest potential obstacles and challenges that we might not have originally considered, as well as suggesting potential positive and negative feedbacks, which could make problems more complicated to resolve.

We have applied these tools to help policymakers to better understand the potential consequences of their policies of interest, as well as highlight policies that look particularly beneficial or negative. This work has often been at the direct request of policymakers who themselves are more than aware of the complexity of the world and are looking for tools to help them better engage with complexity and uncertainty. The tools are helpful in reminding us that not all goods things go together, and that progress will not be panglossian. As we progress on some fronts, we may take steps back on others. Foresight methodologies and tools help give us a sense of the types and magnitude of tradeoffs we may have to make as we try to achieve the SDGs.

For example, efforts to prevent the conversion of land to agricultural purposes to prevent biodiversity loss and GHG emissions may make it more difficult to achieve the goal of zero hunger by reducing potential agricultural production, unless we layer additional interventions and investments to increase agricultural productivity. Of course, these subsequent investments may in fact be problematic for water quality and biodiversity if they involve heavy use of chemical inputs, and so on and so forth.

While these tools cannot fully account for all the connections and complexity in the world, and ultimately are themselves in constant need of questioning and improvement, they are still helpful. They help us to operationalize complexity in a transparent, systematic, and manageable way. In so doing, they improve our understanding of how our actions may have broad and unexpected implications. They push us away from purely linear thinking to gain a better appreciation for non-linear effects (i.e. network effects, vicious and virtuous cycles, etc.). They also encourage us to think of sustainable development as a process; to recognize we will need to constantly calibrate our efforts in response to unexpected consequences and events. All of which is valuable in the development of more holistic and robust policies that try to maximize positive outcomes while minimizing negative ones in an uncertain and constantly changing world.

It is also worth highlighting that the kind of system thinking encouraged by these tools does not require the use of advanced mathematical models. There are many ways to incorporate more holistic and systems thinking into policymaking, something that was quite evident from the very insightful questions that were raised by the class. In fact, I am heartened by the depth of some of the questions asked, as it suggests that we will continue plugging away at the great challenges confronting us.