On Global Dashboard Alex Evans discusses a report he wrote for ActionAid on critical uncertainties for development between the present and 2020.  Given Alex got to distill a bunch of futures studies, scenarios and outlooks into this report, I have to say this: I want his job.

The list he produces is quite interesting.  In distilled form, they are:

1. What is the global balance of power in 2020?

2. Will job creation keep pace with demographic change to 2020?

3. Is there serious global monetary reform by 2020?

4. Who will benefit from the projected ‘avalanche of technology’ by 2020?

5. Will the world face up to the equity questions that come with a world of limits by 2020?

6. Is global trade in decline by 2020?

7. How has the nature of political influence changed by 2020?

8. What will the major global shocks be between now and 2020?

All are fair questions.  And, in general, I like his 10 recommendations for addressing these challenges:

1. Be ready (because shocks will be the key drivers of change)

2. Talk about resilience (because the poor are in the firing line)

3. Put your members in charge (because they can bypass you)

4. Talk about fair shares (because limits change everything)

5. Specialise in coalitions (and not just of civil society organisations)

6. Take on the emerging economies (including from within)

7. Brings news from elsewhere (because innovation will come from the edges)

8. Expect failure (and look for the silver lining)

9. Work for poor people, not poor countries (as most of the former are outside the latter)

10. Be a storyteller (because stories create worldviews)

I particularly like #10 here, as it was exactly this idea that motivated me to write Delivering Development.  And #7 is more or less the political challenge I lay out in the last 1/4 of the book.  #9 is a clear reference to Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion, which everyone should be looking at right now.  In short, Alex and I are on the same page here.

I have two bits of constructive criticism to offer that I think would strengthen this report – and would be easy edits.  First, I think Alex has made a bit of a mistake in limiting his concern for environmental shocks to climate shocks.  These sorts of shocks are, of course, critical (hell, welcome to my current job), but there are other shocks out there that are perhaps not best captured as climate shocks on such a short timescale.  For example, ecological collapse from overuse/misuse of ecosystem resources (see the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) may have nothing at all to do with climate change – overfishing is currently crushing most major global fisheries, and the connection between this behavior and climate change is somewhat distant, at best.  We’ve been driving several ecosystems off cliffs for some time now, and one wonders when resilience will fail and a state change will set in.  It is near-impossible to know what the new state of a stressed ecosystem will be after a state change, so this is really a radical uncertainty we need to be thinking about.

Second, I am concerned that Stevens’ claim about the collapse of globalization bringing about “savage” negative impacts on the developing world.  Such a claim strikes me as overgeneralized and therefore missing the complexity of the challenge such a collapse might bring – and it is a bit ironic, given his admonition to “talk about resilience” above.  I think that some people (urban dwellers in particular) would likely be very hard hit – indeed, the term savage might actually apply to those who are heavily integrated into global markets simply by the fact they are living in large cities whose economies are driven by global linkages.  And certainly those in marginal rural environments who are already subject to crop failure and other challenges will likely suffer greatly from the loss of market opportunities and perhaps humanitarian assistance (look at contemporary inland Somalia for an illustration of what I am talking about here).  However, others (the bulk of rural farmers with significant subsistence components to their agricultural activities, or the option to convert activities to subsistence) have the option to pull back from market engagement and still make a stable living.  Opportunity will certainly dry up for these people, at least for a while, as this is usually a strategy for managing temporary economic fluctuations.  This is certainly a negative impact, for if development does nothing else, it must provide opportunities for people.  However, this sort of negative impact doesn’t rise to “savage” – which to me implies famine, infant mortality, etc.  I think we make all-to-easy connections between the failure of globalization/development (I’m not sure they are all that different, really, a point I discuss in Delivering Development).  Indeed, a sustained loss of global connection might, in the long run, create a space for local innovations and market development that could lead to a more robust future.

So to “be ready” requires, I think, a bit of a broadening of our environmental concerns, and a major effort to engage the complexity of engagement with the global economy among the rural poor in the world.  Both are quite doable – and are really minor edits to a very nice report (which I still wish I wrote).