USAID turns to scenario planning to prepare for future global crises

USAID provided personal protective equipment to the Thai Ministry of Public Health to assist its COVID-19 response. Photo by: Wiraporn Srisuwanwattana / USAID / CC BY-NC

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Even as the coronavirus pandemic still rages, the U.S. Agency for International Development is taking steps to better prepare it for other unpredictable and highly-disruptive events in the future.

That effort has involved an “unprecedented” scenario planning exercise involving 75 USAID development experts, as well as the creation of a strategic foresight unit, which will try to ensure that future forecasting is included in the agency’s own policies and its contributions to government-wide strategic planning, according to Joshua Kaufman, director of the office of policy in USAID’s Policy, Planning and Learning Bureau.

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March, USAID created a task force to manage its response, as it typically does in the case of major crises. But USAID’s leaders also understood that COVID-19 was different from other disasters in important ways, Kaufman said.

“We realized that there were other similar issues out there.”

— Joshua Kaufman, director of the office of policy, USAID Bureau for Policy, Planning & Learning

First, it presented a global health and humanitarian crisis beyond the scale of anything the agency had faced before. Second, it produced immediate spillover impacts for other development priorities, such as poverty, food insecurity, education, and governance. And finally, the pandemic created enormous disruptions for USAID’s own operations, as well as those of its implementing partners, country counterparts, and other donors.

“It was clear that these impacts were going to continue for a long period of time, in some cases for years,” Kaufman said.

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With that in mind, the agency set in motion a planning process called “Over the Horizon,” intended to help USAID prepare for the medium and long-term effects of COVID-19.

The first step was a landscape analysis, which identified five key trends that were likely to result from the pandemic, with implications for the next several years.

These included national security impacts — particularly related to the Chinese government’s international response to the pandemic during an era of “great power competition” — direct and indirect health impacts, macroeconomic crisis at the global and national scales, microeconomic crisis at the household and individual levels, and impacts on governance, democracy, and stability, Kaufman said.

With those five main trends as a starting point, the agency mapped out 31 different scenarios across a continuum of worst and best cases related to each of those themes. That analysis helped to inform the agency’s goals related to the medium- and long-term response to COVID-19. These focus on improving resilience and decreasing instability at the national level, supporting the most vulnerable communities and households, and shoring up health systems and global health security.

Those broad objectives are undergirded by 32 specific recommendations, which include a mix of programmatic steps that relate to USAID’s development objectives, as well as operational recommendations related to the agency’s own corporate processes.

Among these latter recommendations was to create a strategic foresight unit, which will seek to apply similar kinds of forecasting and scenario planning utilized in response to COVID-19 to help the agency and its country counterparts better prepare for other disruptive events that might occur in the future.

“Pandemics, as we're now seeing, are something that could have a global impact, have a direct impact on us as an agency, are likely to happen at some point over a reasonable time horizon, but in any given year are unpredictable and unlikely to happen,” Kaufman said.

“We realized that there were other similar issues out there,” he added.

Those might include climate shocks, refugee crises, or the implications of various “meta trends,” Kaufman said, such as the proliferation of machine learning and artificial intelligence, or the geopolitics of great power competition.

The purpose of the strategic foresight unit will be “to understand those trends better ... but then tie them into the reality of what USAID's priorities and processes are,” Kaufman said.

That unit will be housed inside an existing office within the USAID Bureau For Policy, Planning, And Learning — and so does not require congressional notification to create, Kaufman said — and it will seek to feed into government policy processes, such as USAID’s contributions to the National Security Strategy and its joint strategic plan with the Department of State.

The strategic foresight unit — which builds on work that began in its U.S. Global Development Lab — will also seek to “push down” its analyses to USAID’s country missions and partners as they implement the five-year country development cooperation strategies that have been completed over the last year.

“In a lot of cases we're going to be building off of things that we've already been doing as an agency and looking to scale them or apply them in a more rigorous way,” Kaufman said, adding that could include revising agency internal guidance to require all future USAID policies and strategies to include a forecasting section.

Kaufman added that while the recommendations that came out of Over the Horizon are all either fully or partially within USAID’s “manageable interest” — meaning they are things the agency can do with its own authority — tools like strategic forecasting might also be used to inform budget discussions.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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