We started the 2020 season of A Deeper Look by discussing trends that are shaping the future of human development. Little did we know the extent to which a global pandemic would shake and shape our world and set the course for human development work for years to come. While many major trends have been emerging for years, COVID-19 has shifted their trajectories and amplified challenges in ways that are expected to slow — and in some cases reverse — development progress.
Nevertheless, when I asked each of my guests this season whether they were pessimistic or optimistic about the future, I heard almost unanimous optimism and faith in human resilience, ingenuity and adaptability.
This year’s conversations with leaders, innovators and humanitarians yielded valuable insights and observations. Here are some of the key takeaways from this season of looking at the shape of things to come:
1. The rise of nationalism and isolationism
The worrisome rise of nationalism and an inward-looking mindset will continue to influence world affairs. “This idea that you need to insulate yourself from the world’s problems has in many ways been, unfortunately, modeled in a negative way by Europe and the United States,” says Sam Worthington, Chief Executive Officer of InterAction. “What this is doing is a reduction in a focus on extreme poverty — a willingness to fund official development assistance or even private giving outside your borders — and it’s also creating barriers for forcibly displaced people.”
2. The impact of climate change on the most vulnerable people
Climate change is going to change the way we live, with the brunt of the negative impacts falling on the most vulnerable. “… Migration and displacement is forced by climate change … particularly [for] those who are living in the poorest areas,” says Carolyn Miles, former Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children US.
But, efforts at mitigation and adaptation are picking up speed, often with the help of old and new technologies. “I’m pretty sure that in ten years’ time you will find that the structure of economies and the way we go about doing business in many, many places is going to be different because of their response to climate,” says Masood Ahmed, President of the Center for Global Development. Youth will be the changemakers. “You see young people around the world actually getting focused on it because it’s going to be their world,” says Ahmed.
3. Growing income inequalities and disparities
It is not surprising that those who are already the most vulnerable are the most affected by negative trends. Nowhere is this clearer than in the growing gap in income. “Over the last 40 to 50 years, we’ve seen a phenomenal development across the emerging market world that has reflected globalization and has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty,” says Andrew Spindler, President and Chief Executive Officer of Financial Services Volunteer Corps. “Many emerging market countries have accumulated significant wealth. But, as they’ve done that, the disparities between the most wealthy and the largely poor remaining population have grown.”
4. The persistence of systemic barriers to gender equality
“COVID did not end up being the great equalizer, as we were wont to say at the beginning,” says Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund. “It threw up all of the inequalities, all of the lacks … in the health system but also in a broader social safety net system.” Gender disparities will continue to shape societies. Dr. Kanem tells us that the time to act is now. “When we envision who is being privileged to be able to invest in themselves and their futures, it’s still very much the case that the adolescent girl is vulnerable. The pandemic is showing us that gender equality is long overdue, and for me, it’s an opportunity to act … to find other like-minded people who want to do something and to get the job done.”
5. Accelerated but uneven adoption of learning technology
Across the globe this year, we saw living rooms and homes transformed into virtual classrooms. COVID-19 made remote learning a universal experience and has forever altered the way we think about education. “Some countries are doing better in terms of using modern technology, even leapfrogging into the 21st century,” says Sidiki Traore, Founder and President of Distance Education for Africa. Other countries are seeing an increasing divide based on lack of infrastructure, such as access to internet and technology. This digital divide threatens to leave a lasting mark on those who had and did not have access to remote learning.
6. Nonstate actors as permanent features of the modern world
Insurgent groups and nonstate actors will continue to be a threat, particularly in countries or regions that lack good governance and the ability to enforce the rule of law. “Governance itself is under a lot of stress, and I think that will, particularly in areas in the developing world, continue to be a cause and a catalyst for conflict,” says retired Lieutenant General David Barno. “These nonstate actors thrive in that space.”
7. The future is urban
Since 2006, the majority of the population — close to 55 percent in 2018 — increasingly resides in urban areas. In parts of Central America, as many as 9 out of 10 people reside in cities. “Development was largely designed and planned around rural development,” says Lars Gustavvson, Leading Partner for the Fourth Sector Futures Group. “… All of us were trained on rural development.”
Yet, rural and urban needs are different and require a different approach. “If you look at what are the urban tragedies or urban needs versus rural, the top killers or hazards in urban settings are car crashes, respiratory disease, drownings, violence and gangs, urban diseases and tobacco,” says Gustavvson. “Urban hunger is completely different than its rural cousin. And, the urban is edging toward youth, whereas the rural is edging toward elderly. There is a long list of significant differences.”
8. New appreciation for how public and private resource mobilization must work together
While the role of the private sector in financing development has long been recognized and has driven much development progress in the 21st century, COVID-19 reminded us of the importance of public investment in areas of common wellbeing such as health, education and social safety nets. “I certainly think that public finance will play a very large and much more important role than it did before,” says Homi Kharas, Interim Vice President and Director of the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. “I think that we will probably then see the state trying to say, how do I play this role in a more market-friendly fashion? I don’t view it as being the state as old-style, state-owned enterprises and things like that. But, maybe the time is now coming when we will start to think more seriously about national development banks.”
9. The need for culturally responsive U.S. education systems
“Another trend going forward is not simply thinking about how to better serve low-income communities and low-income families,” says Warren Simmons, Senior Policy Advisor at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, “but also how to make our education system far more culturally adaptive than it has been and was designed to be in the 20th century.”
In the United States, this includes viewing emerging populations and recent immigrants as integral to shaping education so that students and citizens remain globally competitive. “It’s very difficult to be innovative when you’re being measured against traditional measures that imply an old core curriculum and a procedure through basic higher-level skills devoid of any social or cultural relevance and context.”
10. The shift from transactional to transformational development relationships
Creating agency with local organizations and development partnerships stood out as a theme all season. How we relate to and partner with organizations matters. And, part of partnerships is creating local ownership.
“In some of the ways that we provide assistance, it’s actually distorted markets and it’s displaced national resources to do other things rather than enter into the full nature of the partnership that it needs to enter into,” says Mark Meassick, Mission Director of USAID Kenya and East Africa. “I think that there’s blame on both sides about why we get to those positions, and we usually look at our relationships as transactional and not transformational. We really need to move into that transformational space.”
11. A growing call to decolonize global health and development
Recognizing the power dynamics between the global North and South and acknowledging the potential harm caused when these are exploitative will shape the way we work together. Part of decolonization is the recognition that stakeholders come with different advantages and disadvantages. The time has come for advantaged international actors to step back, according to the three co-founders of the Decolonizing Global Health working group at Duke University, Yadu Raveendran, Laura Mkumba, and Andrea Koris.
“Leaning out implies loss of power, loss of privilege … I think that there’s a loss that needs to be acknowledged and accepted when we talk about decolonizing systems,” says Koris. “Historically, we’ve looked at development through economic development … through capitalism,” says Mkumba. “That’s when we have these issues of using that dichotomy of developed versus developing because it implies that this system is better. It ignores the fact that even within developed countries, even in the United States where you have certain communities that are more advantaged and have better health outcomes, this didn’t happen in a vacuum.” “It’s imperative that the perspectives are not coming [just] from people sitting in Geneva or the United States. Because, if our voices aren’t being heard, how are we going to make change?” says Raveendran.
This year’s A Deeper Look podcast on trends shaping the future of development segues into the theme for 2021: disruptions and disruptors in global development. Listen to the audio for additional reflection on this past season and what I will be discussing next time on A Deeper Look.