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.
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 1985? 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 happens 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.
To help understand how to usefully think about the future to inform decision making today, an initiative mounted this year helped people create and discuss scenarios which are “plausible descriptions of how the future may develop, based on coherent and internally consistent set of assumptions about key relationships and driving forces.”
It was run by the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, Oxfam GB, Oxfam Bangladesh, and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). This edition of the Climate Tribune is devoted to the initiative and explains what was done and how.
Participative scenario planning involves imagining a range of different development trajectories. Widely used in business, industry and the environmental community, scenario-planning helps governments, development agencies, and business create plans that are resilient under different potential future social, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and technological conditions.
The “zero-zero” initiative (zero hunger-zero emissions) starts from the core challenge arising from two imperatives. One is the Paris Agreement to halt runaway climate change, which says that in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade, the world must rapidly move to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The other is the need for sustainable human development enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the goal to eliminate the scourge of hunger -- zero hunger. All nations will have to totally transform their economies to meet climate change, environmental and economic challenges involved. In Bangladesh, greenhouse gas emissions are still mostly from the agricultural sector, and energy use is rising. Can both goals be achieved, or neither, or one at the expense of the other?
The initiative did not seek to provide answers to these complex questions, but to find helpful ways for people to think about and discuss them by exploring different pathways into the future and their implications for decisions taken today. Because these issues are new, big and strange, they are difficult to discuss. The temptation is to leave them to a small group of specialists and even then, they may disagree depending on their expertise and priorities, whether that be food or energy or climate policy. So how can these issues be debated and by whom?
Staff from Oxfam Bangladesh first went to interview young people in rural areas in Barisal and Rajshahi, because it is young people who will inherit the future that is being built now. They were asked about their lives, the challenges they faced, their views on climate change, how they saw the future of their country and their own futures. Some of what they said is reflected in an article elsewhere in this paper.
Then in April, some 30 experts from the food and climate change and energy communities came together for two days of discussions in Dhaka. 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. These scenarios were developed further over the following months and then shared with rural people and with students for their reactions. Then in September, a further meeting in Dhaka brought together some of the original participants and others to finalize the scenarios. The next day the scenarios were presented to the Planning Commission.
The Green Road: Bangladesh uses the SDGs to guide it. Its motto is “leave no-one behind.” It places high priority on good governance, a more inclusive society, and a healthy environment, with active environmental management. There is a push to agro-ecology and use of digital technology for citizen empowerment. But the backlog of environmental degradation is hard to reverse, inclusive decision-making needs time and deliberation, and shifts towards agro-ecology and land reform involve trade-offs with food production and profit targets.
The Middle Road: In this scenario, society muddles along in that historical trends continue; there are few radical departures from current policies and practices; governance, inclusivity, and environmental focus and management are patchy and despite good policies on paper, practice and implementation are often poor. Climate change impacts and environmental degradation increase. The capacity of governance systems to do much more than simply react to reduce the human impacts is severely challenged.
The Divided Road: In this scenario, Bangladesh takes a road which is much more divisive and divided. The government’s motto is “a clean society,” especially to clean up crime and corruption. It moves towards being a digitally controlled, more authoritarian state on the lines of some South-East Asian countries. Governance is more top-down, more directive and more effective in some ways and for some supporters but greater inequality is accepted and people are “in” or “out”. Agri-businesses run agriculture. How people experience the state of the environment depends on where they sit in society.
The Rocky Road: 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. Climate breakdown puts the political system under immense strain. Parts of the country effectively govern themselves or become battlegrounds for rival Yaba barons. The threat of famine re-emerges. Governance is weak and erratic. Environmental management and food security are largely off the agenda and this is a particularly harsh and unpleasant scenario for women and girls.
These scenarios are not meant to be probable; but everyone involved in the process agreed they are plausible, and this helped stimulate thinking about their implications for trends set in motion today. Discussions were wide-ranging, as this supplement describes, and broadened to discuss what sort of development path the country might take.
In a meeting with the Planning Commission, planners were asked to imagine themselves in the year 2041, living in a particular scenario and having to answer questions from their children or grandchildren: “Mummy/Daddy, what did you do back in 2018 that made the country like it is today, what decisions did you make then?” This brought the issue home that the consequences of decisions taken today will shape the long-term future, and that decisions taken in any one sector agriculture, food, energy, gender, social policy must not be considered in isolation because they have knock-on effects elsewhere.
A version of this article was originally published in the May edition of the Climate Tribune. It has been updated to reflect further developments.
John Magrath is a researcher and writer who has worked for Oxfam GB for over 30 years in a variety of roles. He specializes in climate change issues. Meraz Mostafa is the content editor for the Climate Tribune.