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.


New journal article in The Lancet: Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: a modelling study

Kind of crazy to think that I have had the opportunity to work on a project that got published in The Lancet. I knew the journal had extremely high visibility and impact, but intellectually knowing this and actually experiencing it are 2 different things. The journal article was released by Lancet last night and it is already getting major attention, with an article in the Guardian, an article on GIZMODO, and requests from several newspapers to talk about our findings.

While it took a lot of work and time to get the article through through the peer review process, it was a fun experience on the whole. It was great getting to collaborate with colleagues, such as Marco Springmann, at the University of Oxford to explore the effects of climate change on diets, and health. Hopefully, this is just the start of several future collaborations, which will allow us to explore the intersections of agriculture, trade, diet, and health. It is kind of crazy to think that this whole endeavor started almost 2 years ago when I met Marco in an IMPACT model training workshop I led in Cali, Colombia.

The abstract of the article is available for free at The Lancet:

Unfortunately, it looks like the full article requires a subscription to read. I am looking at what options we have for sharing the article. In the mean time, you can check out this blog post I made on the IFPRI Research blog summarizing some of the work, as well as the press release written by my colleagues at Oxford.


New publication with EuroChoices on the role of irrigation efficiency and climate change

EuroChoices just released a follow up article to the work I had previously done with Ada Ignaciuk at the OECD, looking at the potential role of increasing irrigation efficiency to adapt to climate change. This article is more focused towards policy makers in summarizing some key trade offs with irrigation management (e.g. irrigation expansion and irrigation efficiency) as a vehicle for climate adaptation. You can take a look at this new article here:

For a more technical and detailed analysis you can also take a look at the first report that we did that was released last year. This report focused more on OECD countries, as compared to the EuroChoices article which has a more global focus. This report also looked at the effects of a couple hypothetical technologies to provide context to the relative improvement due to better irrigation management. You can download the report from the OECD at:

Book Review: Equality and Efficiency the Big TradeOff

Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (A Brookings Classic)Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff by Arthur M. Okun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting book, written back in the 1970s, and still relevant. While this was written 40 years ago, the challenges between equality and efficiency is one that continues to bedevil us, and has recently returned to to forefront of discussion. Considering this, I think that this book is definitely worth revisiting especially considering the very pragmatic way that Okun approaches the subject. I really liked the way that Okun presented the issue of having to balance social good with economic efficiency. I found his frank discussion appealing, especially with how objective he tried to be showing both the pros and cons of different decisions that each society must make, as well as his own preference of where he would have liked society to have come to.

View all my reviews

CCAFS Annual Report

The CGIAR Research Project on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (2014) just released their 2014 annual report. They have done so in a fairly innovative and interactive online format. Lots of cool work was done for CCAFS on a variety of different topics across a range of scales and regions. Some of the work that I did last year working with the OECD was highlighted in the report, which is pretty gratifying considering how much time and effort went into the report. You can take a look at the Annual report at:

New IFPRI Publication Looking at Climate Change and Gender in Mexico, Brazil, and Peru

IFPRI just released a new discussion paper that I helped with looking at the potential effects of climate change on incomes in Mexico, Brazil, and Peru. This discussion paper estimates that there will be significant losses to agricultural income through negative climate shocks and that these losses will have gender differentiated effects at the household level.

Take a look at the discussion paper, which you can download for free at:

Presenting in Bogota Colombia


Last week I presented work I’ve been involved with at IFPRI with the IMPACT model. I explained how the model works and how this tool can be used in conjunction with other tools developed at IFPRI can be applied to the Colombian context to analyze complex issues like the effects of climate change on agricultural prices, land-use, and GHG emmissions.

Take a look at the blogpost I posted about the event at the Global Futures website: