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Why is 'development' struggling to embrace uncertainty?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 31 Oct 2012 13:34 GMT
Author: Lindsey Jones
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By Lindsey Jones

The ‘development sector’ has long abided by one of its few universal principles: decisions are made in the context of a complex and ever-changing world.

Whether seen from the perspective of delivering a government development plan or an NGO’s programmatic activities, each will have to respond to the myriad of changing future threats and opportunities. Doing so is crucial to success and sustainability in the long run.

Importantly, not only is the pace and scale of change in the 21st century ever apparent, but the drivers of change are increasingly interconnected.  Closer links between global and local markets, greater access to communications technology, and intensifying pressures on finite natural resources are but a handful of current accelerators of change.

Added to this, the impacts of climate change will interact with each of these accelerators and create an extra layer of complexity.

Ensuring that development activities are governed by principles of flexible and forward-looking decision-making is therefore key. In theory this means that processes of decision-making are able to anticipate and prepare for future threats or opportunities, learn from mistakes, and have the capacity to accommodate for future changes (both known and unknown).

Seemingly evident and straight forward enough; yet in practice few development actors can claim to abide by these principles.   

DIAGNOSING THE PROBLEM

Though the ‘development sector’ spans a considerable range of actors and activities, it doesn’t take long to diagnose the nature of development planning as rigid and rooted in shorter-term timescales.

Few development programmes have systematically incorporated medium-to-longer term risks and opportunities (say from 5 years all the way up to 100) into their day-to-day activities. Fewer still have ensured that the outputs and outcomes of their work are able to respond (and where necessary transform completely) in the light of changing climate and development pressures.  

Understanding why things are the way they are requires a detailed look at the development sector as a whole. Evidence documented by the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA), a four-year research and capacity building initiative seeking to support adaptation in Africa, sheds light on some of the key obstacles.

ACCRA research looks at how prepared local development actors (mainly NGOs and district governments) are in dealing with change and uncertainty in three separate districts in Uganda, Mozambique and Ethiopia. Unsurprisingly, the research shows that development activities across all sites are largely oriented towards short-term priorities, with little flexibility in programme activities and objectives to respond to change and uncertainty. What is fascinating, however, is that despite very different country contexts many of the barriers to overcoming these challenges are similar.

THE BARRIERS

One of the primary common barriers to flexible and forward-looking governance is the top-down nature of priority setting and budget allocation.

In each ACCRA district, development planning and activities are typically based on 3-to-5 year cycles. This usually mirrors the timespan of funding opportunities and guidelines of the various development funders (mainly central government and international donor agencies).

Threats and opportunities that affect programmes (and the sustainability of their activities) outside of this cyclical period are seldom taken into account. This is partly because there is little incentive to do so, and partly because centrally-allocated targets and activities are usually set according to a ‘stable future outlook’ – i.e. every year is a ‘normal’ year.

Also important is the political economy of development funding. Local actors in all three sites have limited agency (i.e. the ability to make and carry out their own decisions) in shaping development activities. In this context, many core decisions around prioritisation and budgetary expenditure are guided by national and international actors.

Crucially, these central actors and funders have their own pressures and vested interests – whether guided by the need to ensure ‘value for money’, ‘effectiveness’, or politically-motivated ‘results’ for example.

These political and institutional factors are even more relevant in the context of fragile and conflict-affect states where the relationship between national and local actors is often tenuous, and can impede the agency of local decision-makers.                

MOVING TOWARDS REAL PROGRESS

So what can be done to promote flexible and forward looking decision-making at the local level?

To begin with, we have to be clear that real progress can only happen with system-wide change. Focusing solely on actors that deliver development on the ground will fail to recognise the considerable pressures and influence of national and international actors.

Having said that, there are ways to ‘work within the system’. One starting point is to promote awareness of the merits of long-term action and planning at the local level. More important is to reassure decision-makers that planning for future change does not require a clear outlook for the future. Climate science can provide us with a range of predictions for what our future climate may look like, but these are not forecasts.

Given large future uncertainties, it is more appropriate to ensure that decision-makers can respond to a range of future outlooks and deal with unexpected shocks or stresses.  Doing so is not easy, and tools and support will be needed to allow local development actors to adopt these principles. 

Another important factor is incentivising longer-term action. This is where the links between the local and the national (and international) are most apparent. For meaningful action to take place at scale, formal (and informal) incentives will need to be built into programmatic appraisal and monitoring and evaluation systems.

GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT LONG-TERM THINKING

There is only so much that can be garnered from painting the development sector with the same brush, particularly given its considerable diversity. But the shortcomings of traditional development planning and programming are evident. Fortunately, the call to support adaptive capacity and longer-term thinking within development policy and practice is gathering pace. However, not until awareness, incentives, and action are generated at all levels of governance will the development sector learn to live with its universal principle of change and uncertainty.

Lindsey Jones works on climate change, adaptation and development issues at the Overseas Development Institute.

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