OXFORD, England — The head of the United Nations Development Programme has outlined four key factors he says will define the future of development.
“This is not the end of the future — it's just the beginning of the next future.”— Achim Steiner, administrator, UNDP
In a speech at the Oxford Forum for International Development, Achim Steiner — the UNDP administrator who previously led the U.N. Environment Programme and the U.N. Office at Nairobi — highlighted how rapid global changes will affect development and should be embraced by professionals in the sector.
He argued that the Sustainable Development Goals already encapsulate these challenges, describing them as a “manifestation of wisdom about the great risks of the 21st century.”
Steiner said the economic paradigm of the last century, while imperfect, was “incredibly successful.”
“Deficiencies should not mask the story of development success … We live in a world today that I think nobody in the 1850s would wish to trade in terms of possibilities,” he said. “But the era of the 20th century is over now — that period where we thought that science and technology allows us to exploit planet Earth … to create extraordinary wealth … but at what price?”
Steiner said recent mass unrest around the world had different political expressions but ultimately had “a lot” to do with unfairness, inequality, and uncertainty about the future.
“We are now on the verge of shifting into an economic paradigm that is not about communism or capitalism; it is about recalibrating equity and sustainability into a development paradigm,” he said. “Trickle-down” economics is “over,” he added.
Reducing and eliminating carbon emissions across energy supplies — once seen as the preserve of niche environmental campaigners — is “not a hypothetical anymore,” Steiner said.
“It is now a fact, and it will happen in the next 30 to 40 years, and it will change everything,” he continued. “This is fundamental to what happens next in every aspect of development: transport, energy, agriculture, urbanization, trade.”
Steiner stressed that some economists view decarbonization as a great growth opportunity.
“This is not the end of the future — it's just the beginning of the next future,” he said.
3. The Fourth Industrial Revolution
This term, coined by World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, describes the rise of digital, artificial intelligence, and other technologies and how they impact the way we live. These developments, Steiner said, will “change everything.”
“This is not just a matter of technology, but also governance,” he said.
As an example, Steiner cited the potential use of digital finance platforms to enable greater citizen participation in monetary systems.
“Our financial system has become a bizarre rationale in which our money, handed to institutions, suddenly becomes institutions’ money that has to be invested in ways most of us don’t agree with anymore,” he said.
“It is high time, with digital finance, that we reoccupy that space. Citizens [will] become far more able to track what their money is doing and what it shouldn’t be doing.”
Finally, Steiner cited Sudan’s recent revolution to highlight the link between good governance, development, and the growing influence of people power.
He stressed that different aspects of governance would vary in importance between countries. Decentralization, for instance, would likely play a key role in contexts where elites use government institutions to hoard money.
Steiner predicted that governance will be affected by the evolving and hyperconnected nature of communities — such as the grassroots climate movement — characterized by their indifference to traditional political processes. “We are in a fairly epochal moment of being questioned by communities around the world,” he said.
The revolution in Sudan, which succeeded through a grassroots movement after decades of international efforts had failed, was offered as an example of the impact communities can have and their relationship to governance and development.
“The international community can only get itself to a point where it can provide humanitarian aid, when actually what Sudan needs right now is development finance, being able to reinvest in the stabilization of its economy,” Steiner said. “Out of that will arise a new form of government, hopefully more stable and legitimate.
“If you are thinking about development, you also need to think about governance and the governance systems and how they will function in the future, not least against the backdrop of community and [governments in] council,” he concluded.