There’s a lot of “if only’s” in conversations about what could have prevented the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. We’ve heard about the importance of strong health systems, trained front-line health workers and swift international response to emerging health threats. If foresight were used, governments might have been better equipped to respond to the current situation in the region.
Peter van de Pol, a policy adviser for capacity development at the United Nations Development Program, works on foresight with public institutions. Foresight means imagining different futures, reflecting that change is happening constantly and the future is not a given. Traditional planning strategies, meanwhile, predict the future based on past events.
In the case of West Africa, clinics were built to deal with diseases that have surfaced in the region over the last 10-20 years. Before 2014, Ebola only affected countries outside the region.
“There are lots of unexpected things happening,” van de Pol told Devex. “Opportunities are popping up everywhere and the state apparatus is usually not very good to respond to that, to adapt to that.”
Elements of foresight
● Distributed knowledge. To come up with different future scenarios, you need to go beyond information from traditional sources like experts and national data. Know what people and communities are saying, such as through social media.
● Flexible organizational structures. You need mechanisms that can act upon findings of foresighting events and not be married to what a five-year plan recommends.
● Shorter feedback loops. You have to do away with long-term monitoring and evaluation cycles so you could see which of the scenarios are actually emerging.
This type of “future thinking” may be common in the private sector, but it remains relatively rare in development cooperation. The process entails coming up with scenarios, whether preferred and otherwise, to understand ways to mitigate risks in the future.
Several countries have approached UNDP to help them think about alternative futures. In July, for instance, the Rwandan government approached the agency’s Global Center for Public Service Excellence to become more flexible in developing and implementing policies. This month, the center is due to hold foresighting events focused on urbanization, rural development and project implementation in Rwanda.
Tonga is another case. The Tongan government has asked the center to help it come up with more flexible ways of devising and implementing policy, as the small island state is among those at risk of disappearing due to climate change.
A recent public event in Tonga featured more than 100 Tongans from all walks of life imagining the small island nation’s future and how it might address emerging challenges. Local artists produced paintings based on those scenarios. The outcome of that gathering was then presented to the Tongan Cabinet and, earlier this month, at a side event of the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States held in Apia, Samoa.
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Development groups can also use foresight to guide their work.
“It is not just the manner of managing risks, it's also an extremely important tool of saying, ‘Well maybe in the future, this is going to happen and that has this opportunity for us,’” van de Pol said. “if it comes along, you’re prepared for it and you know what to do and you're probably better able to develop your proposal to donors than you would be if you hadn't thought about it.”
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