Development’s next decade

by | Mar 28, 2011

Continuing our recent international development futures theme on Global Dashboard (see Andy’s post on international NGOs last week, and also the podcast I did on global development challenges with Owen Barder and Malini Mehra on Development Drums) – here’s a new report (pdf, 42 pages) that I did for ActionAid on critical uncertainties for development between now and 2020.

ActionAid commissioned the report as an input to their new International Strategy for 2012 to 2016. They asked me to review a large range of futures studies, outlook reports, scenario planning exercises and so on, and from them distill a sense of what are the key questions for the development outlook over the decade ahead – and also to extract some key recommendations for what this changing context would mean for them as a global campaigning organisation. Putting it together was a lot of fun.

There’s a brief summary below of the eight uncertainties and ten recommendations for ActionAid, lifted from the executive summary; click here to download the full report.


Eight critical uncertainties for development in 2020

1. What is the global balance of power in 2020? The futures studies examined for this report generally concur that US power will decline in relative terms from now to 2020, as part of a broader shift to a multipolar world that will see more influence flowing to emerging economies.  But they differ on important nuances – in particular, which emerging economies are poised to benefit from the shift.

2. Will job creation keep pace with demographic change to 2020? Numerous developing countries are about to experience a surge in their working age populations. These demographic conditions could provide a springboard for sharply rising incomes, or an entry point to instability and state fragility. Key questions include social protection provision in 2020, whether the world’s cities can cope with the strains of rapid expansion, and whether developing economies start to experience the ‘job polarisation’ already seen in some developed economies.

3. Is there serious global monetary reform by 2020? The financial crisis is not over, in particular given the ongoing risks of weak bank regulation, potential sovereign debt defaults in developed countries, and the possibility of a disorderly unwinding of global trade and currency imbalances.  Two key questions for the future are whether the dollar loses its status as global reserve currency (and if so, what replaces it), and whether a ‘limits to growth’ agenda finds practical application in monetary and financial policy.

4. Who will benefit from the projected ‘avalanche of technology’ by 2020? The next 10 years will see major innovations in biotechnology and genetics, energy and resource efficiency, computer science and IT, and human augmentation, as well as unpredictable synergies between them. These changes will raise three key questions for poor men and women: how they could benefit; where they will miss out (with potential exacerbation of inequality); and how emerging technologies could create new risks for them.

5. Will the world face up to the equity questions that come with a world of limits by 2020? The world’s middle class is expanding rapidly, and so is demand for energy, ‘western diets’ and other resources – but limits to supply growth, especially of land, water, food, oil and ‘carbon space’ for emissions, create the risk of an age of growing scarcity. This raises the question both of how poor men and women can become more resilient to the impacts of a world of scarcity, and a broader agenda of ‘fair shares’ to land, water, food, oil and the atmosphere.

6. Is global trade in decline by 2020? International trade faces major risks from now to 2020, including protectionism (not only tariffs and quotas, but also ‘currency wars’ and carbon tariffs); security of supply problems (e.g. food export restrictions); and the effects on trade volumes of sharply rising oil prices. These potential shifts could impact poor people disproportionately, and lead to a world of more regional (or even local) markets, or endogenous growth strategies.

7. How has the nature of political influence changed by 2020? Many futures studies agree that a more multipolar world will see a bigger role for “nonstate actors”, but are vague about who is included in this category. This section of the paper looks briefly at the potential influence of young people, women and ‘supranational tribes’; the evolving role of social networking technologies and the kinds of political activity they can enable; the changing relationship between citizens and states; and emerging shifts in values and worldview, including religious observance and the potential for a large-scale transformational shift in values.

8. What will the major global shocks be between now and 2020? Finally, the paper emphasises that shocks, rather than gradual stresses, are likely to be the key drivers of global change during a turbulent decade ahead, and sets out a range of potential sources of such shocks.


Ten recommendations for the next ten years

1. Be ready (because shocks will be the key drivers of change) – With a decade of turbulence ahead, advocates of global justice need to be ready with concrete ideas to take advantage of shocks that open windows of political opportunity, suddenly and only briefly. Civil society organisations should put aside a proportion of their policy and advocacy resource to develop ‘massive asks’, together with blitzkrieg 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) – The decade ahead will be characterised primarily by risks, with poor people usually the most vulnerable. Civil society organisations need to gear up for a massive push on areas like social protection, climate adaptation, peacebuilding, disaster risk reduction and humanitarian assistance – both in their own programme work, and above all through hard-edged advocacy in countries and internationally.

3. Put your members in charge (because they can bypass you) – Most NGOs provide limited opportunities for member engagement, such as participation in postal or internet-based campaigns or simply donating money. Civil society organisations should embrace a change that is coming anyway, and put its members in charge of the organisation – using technology platforms to ask them regularly what to campaign on, where, how to do it, and how they want to be involved.

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. ActionAid is potentially incredibly well placed to be a leader on this agenda, given its roots and experience on issues like land reform. But it will face tough communication challenges as it starts to unpack the global agenda of fair shares over the next decade, and developing advocacy asks centred on changes to global consumption patterns.

5. Specialise in coalitions (and not just of civil society organisations) – Success in global justice advocacy will in future depend on building coalitions of both states and non-state actors, that can act as shared platforms for pursuing shared asks. For civil society organisations to flourish in this environment, the key challenge will be interoperability: the capacity to communicate and work with radically diverse sets of partners, from UN agency staff to multinational companies, and from grassroots activists to government officials. Civil society organisations should ensure that as many of their staff as possible have extensive experience outside the civil society sector, in as many different kinds of organisational context as possible.

6. Take on the emerging economies (including from within) –  Emerging economy interests are increasingly diverging from those of low income countries on key issue areas like climate change and trade, but NGOs still tend reflexively to see G77 states, including emerging economies, as the ‘good guys’, and OECD economies as the ‘bad guys’. Civil society organisations should develop a cross-cutting goal of advocating for emerging economies to play a responsible role in global multilateralism, as well as continuing to focus on domestic issues of social exclusion and poverty within them.

7. Brings news from elsewhere (because innovation will come from the edges) – Even as it emphasises themes of vulnerability and injustice, part of what makes ActionAid interesting is that it also talks more than most NGOs about poor people as powerful (in particular through its human rights based approach). ActionAid should build on this by acting as a counterpoint to development narratives of victimhood – talking about the ways in which poor people are developing some of the most dynamic, innovative and resourceful responses to a volatile world, as a way of delivering on program, advocacy and fundraising objectives.

8. Expect failure (and look for the silver lining) – As well as watching for failures in the external environment and being ready for them (see item # 1 above), civil society organisations should expect to find their own operations (advocacy, programmes, fundraising and management) under substantially heightened stress in the decade ahead. They should prepare for this by modelling themselves on ‘high-reliability organisations’ – the subjects of intensive research into why certain organisations manage to succeed in avoiding catastrophes in environments in which normal accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity.

9. Work for poor people, not poor countries (as most of the former are outside the latter) – Civil society organisations need to start getting ready for a major shift, towards operations in new countries, and advocacy messages that prepare for and then support this. Public opinion in key donor and fundraising countries will frequently tend towards the sceptical (“why should be helping India when it has a space programme?”), so civil society organisations need to start developing the arguments now as to why poor people in these countries still need help, and what form that help will take.

10. Be a storyteller (because stories create worldviews) – civil society organisations should start to position themselves as storytellers about the future. This would involve radically changing how they communicate, and to some extent letting go of being pure development NGOs in favour of larger stories about global transition in which development is but one (essential) part.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...