Beyond the crystal ball

Development Policy03 Dec 2011Berkhout Remko

What will our world look like in, say, twenty years from now, and what does that mean for the strategic choices that NGOs, INGOs and their partners should be making within the next few years? Hivos has been asking itself this question – and with increasing urgency. In fact, this question has made a new shoot grow on the tree of our knowledge programme. It is called ‘Future Calling’ – and we are inviting all of you to share input and feedback to make this programme flourish.

We are not starting from zero. We have a lot to draw on. Recently, our colleagues at Trocaire and ActionAid generously brought two visioning documents into the public domain. Alex Evans (ActionAid) authored 2020 Development Futures, and Maeve Bateman and colleagues produced the Leading Edge 2020 Report. These documents should give any self-respecting international NGO pause for thought. However, we also feel that, just like Duncan Green argued, these analyses unjustly confine INGOs to their familiar domain of the international development sector. We think our reach has become wider than that – and should be. We will try and keep track of similar studies and vision documents by other agencies. If you know of any good ones, then please let us know.

In the meantime, we wonder: What are the really hard questions for the future of INGO’s, and who is prepared to tackle them? For example, what if ‘The End of ODA’ is indeed being heralded, as Jean-Michel Severino and Oliver Ray of the Centre for Global Development have argued? What if we’re no longer NGOs, as Oxfam America’s Kent Glenzer explores? It is these kind of perspectives and uncomfortable questions, which challenge the assumptions and mindsets that, often unspoken, guide our work, which we must address head-on. But how to do this?

Scenario planning offers a potentially interesting avenue. We are familiar with some groundbreaking scenario exercises, such as early work done by Shell on the future of energy and the Mont Fleur scenarios about post-apartheid South Africa. These analyses transformed institutions and affected the world. But good scenario planning is a costly and complex affair, and there are a lot of mediocre scenarios out there to prove it. Besides, even the most visionary scenarios do not automatically lead to change. We agree with ActionAid and with David Korten that stories matter. Yet at the same time, visionary stargazing is all too often the best recipe for inaction. Is there a way to connect with our emerging future through the present? Is there a way to start reflecting on values, missions and intent, before we get bogged down in strategies, log frames and our old ways?

This brings us to a refreshing body of study on methods such as those by the Presencing Institute and Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Inspired by systems theory and complexity thinking, these frameworks have a lot to offer. Yet apart from some pioneering work done by the South African NGO CDRA, we do not know of any development agency or programme that has worked with these methods. So any cases, experiences or references from other sectors are very welcome.

Last but not least, arts and culture can create new connections and insights relevant to the future of aid, but which may be inaccessible through rational argumentation. For example, have a look at ‘the other side of Utopia’, an international art project in Berlin. There are many other spaces out there that harbour the inspiration and energy so often missing in the aid chain.

In short, our Future Calling initiative will work with all of the above. We have no grand plan. We will work with modest budgets and draw on people in our network to co-create this initiative as it unfolds. We will keep track of our journey at the Future Calling webpages and we invite all of you to be a part of this adventure and to share your thoughts with us.