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Uncertain futures

  • Published at 10:37 pm May 20th, 2018
  • Last updated at 10:37 pm May 20th, 2018
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Little did Henry Kissinger know that half a century after his infamous statement, Bangladesh would be a shining example for development around the world Wikimedia Commons

Creating development pathways for alternative futures

When Henry Kissinger infamously said in 1971 that Bangladesh would be a famine-prone “basket case”, he could not have predicted that less than 50 years later the country would have moved from the brink of starvation to being well on the way to middle-income status, and become a shining star for development success in the process. 

The country’s GDP growth rate appears to be accelerating towards 8%. But more importantly, success has not just been measured in economic terms. Bangladesh was one of the few countries to meet most of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals; food insecurity - in terms of access to calories at least - is at an all-time low; and there are 23 million students in school and college, half of them girls. Development success has been people-centered and broad-based. 

So, it would be nice to think the next few decades will mimic the last. But here is where it gets tricky. A constant temptation for planners and policymakers -  in fact, for us humans as a species - is to assume the future will follow much the same trajectory as the past.

Who could have predicted in the mid-1990s the abundance of smartphones today? | Wikimedia Commons

Trajectories are important; Bangladesh’s development successes have been built upon the vision and steady determination of many in government and civil society. Without that drive, born out of the traumatic events of the nation’s birth, the country’s trajectory might indeed have been towards becoming a “basket case”. 

Yet it is also risky to assume that things will just go on in the same way. As the government plans its 2041 Vision, it is worthwhile to think back, say, barely a quarter of a century to contemplate how quickly and radically things can change. Could anyone have imagined smartphones in 1995? Or Facebook’s role in communications? Now societies are seriously contemplating the challenges raised by self-driving cars or robots replacing workers. 

It seems strange too that if people thought about climate change back in 1995, they tended to think that it was something that threatened polar bears, not people. Now we wonder what will happen if climate change suddenly accelerates. What if sea levels rise unexpectedly because of ice melting in far-away Greenland or Antarctica? And who could have predicted the scramble out of coal mining, partly because of climate change concerns, and the extraordinary rise of solar energy? Who can say just how far and how fast such trends will go in just the next decade? 

We know that, inevitably, technological, environmental and economic convulsions will happen. We just do not know what or when. But we live in uncertain times, and it is best we be prepared. 

We also know that despite its development success so far, Bangladesh has a long way to go, and progress cannot be assumed. It is troubling, for example, to reflect on the persistence of stunting and malnutrition despite food security (by some definitions) being achieved; and more troubling that it is women and girls who are still particularly afflicted.  

Scenario planning

To help understand how to usefully think about the future to inform decision making today, a new initiative has started recently. The Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, Oxfam GB, Oxfam Bangladesh and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) came together in Dhaka to run a scenario-building process for stakeholders working in both the food system and climate change sectors. 

Participative scenario planning involves imagining a range of different development trajectories. Widely used in business, industry and the environmental community, scenario-planning helps governments and development agencies create plans that are resilient under different potential future social, economic, cultural, political, environmental and technological conditions.

The challenge

Some 30 experts came together for two days of discussions on April 12 and 13. After much deliberation, they concluded that the crucial components that underpin or undermine progress on development -  especially food security - are two-fold: the status of governance, and the status of the environment. They began to sketch out four potential scenarios that might describe Bangladesh in 2041. 

While astonishing, the technology to 3D print burgers and other types of food using an insect paste exists today । Bigstocks

Scenario #1: Decentralised governance, people’s participation in decision-making, access to data and a push to deal with environmental problems could see current trends in air, soil and water degradation go into reverse, and result in further social gains. But would, say, shifts towards agro-ecology or land reform involve trad

eoffs with food production and profit targets? [Environmental management is pro-active].   

Scenario #2:   Decentralised governance and greater participation are important but what if climate change impacts and environmental degradation prove unstoppable?  The capacity of governance systems to do much more than simply react to reduce the human impacts would be severely challenged. [Environmental management is necessarily more ad hoc]. 

Scenario #3: If there was a change in direction towards a development model more like that of some South-East Asian countries, governance would be more top-down. Production targets – and more fertilizer and pesticide usage – could come first and social and economic inequality might become much more pronounced. How you experience the state of the environment might depend on where you sit in society. [Environmental management is low priority]. 

Scenario #4:  It turns out Kissinger was ultimately right! Various political, economic and environmental shocks, external and internal, see Bangladesh’s development trajectory take a sharp downward pitch. The threat of famine re-emerges. [Environmental management – and food security - are off the agenda]. 

Scenario planning was a tool initially developed in World War 2 to help the military plan for different future conditions । Wikimedia Commons

These scenarios are by no means supposed to be probable; but they are meant to be plausible so as to stimulate thinking about their implications for trends set in motion today. They are also deliberately labelled as extremes; the future will almost definitely be much more muddled. But their purpose is to push policy makers and planners to realize that the future world may be very different to the one we live in today, particularly regarding food security and low carbon growth.

For instance, if the coal market has plummeted by 2041, what does it mean for current investment into coal energy? Do current plans hold in a world where coal is more expensive and renewable energy more affordable?

 What about food systems? Will people be eating rice at the same rate as now? Or will palates be more diverse? Will we be 3D printing our food, a technology that seems astonishing but is already possible? And what might be in that food? What will future farming look like and depending on the pathways taken, what will be the implications for inequality, for gender relations, for young people and for migration? 

The project will bring the participants back together, and bring in others, at a second workshop in late July. This will deepen the analysis of policies and practices, potential tensions, trade-offs or co-benefits, for each scenario, and look across them to analyze what we can learn from this look into the future for the decisions we are making today. 

Living in uncertain times

As the great British soldier -- the Duke of Wellington -- explained when he defeated the French in 1815: “Napoleon built his campaigns of iron, and when one piece broke the whole structure collapsed. I made my campaigns using rope, and if a piece broke I tied a knot and carried on”. In other words, if our development plans are going to be successful, then it is crucial they are flexible and robust for whatever the future may hold.  


John Magrath is a writer who has worked for Oxfam GB for over 30 years in a variety of role.

Meraz Mostafa is a research officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.