“A more beautiful world shimmers just beneath the surface, bobbing up whenever the systems that hold it underwater loosen their grip.” Charles Eisenstein
I write this as someone that’s worked in humanitarian and development aid for almost two decades. I write with great love for the work of my sector but also with great anger, shame and anxiety.
One of the most heartbreaking truths of today is the amplification of how our commons have fundamentally and irrevocably shifted. We know now that we can’t build back to what it was before. The global pandemic has shown up in harsh light the fundamental cracks in our global systems and structures. Our systems, our societies, our actions and behaviours — were a million wounds in a structural ecosystem that was rupturing at its sides. And the system has now blown wide open — revealing to our collective shame — the multitudes of ways, in which we have all failed.
We have failed in ways that keep poor people poor, we have failed to make healthcare sustainable and accessible for everyone, we have failed to safeguard our planet, we have failed to make the world more equal, more just, more safe. We have failed not because the challenges were impossible to solve, but because of our collective lethargy and apathy to truly reimagine a completely different status quo. We have failed because the systems that we are a part of, that we continue to uphold — talk of ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’ — but these systems don’t set out to disrupt or transform themselves. The pandemic isn’t the great equalizer we talk of. Communities of colour, lower income and socio-economic groups, those that fall between the cracks of easily defined ‘vulnerabilities’ , those with health fragility are bearing the brunt of this — as they always have.
“The future deserves a present where our truths are spoken” — Alexis Pauline
What COVID-19 does show us is that most of us yearn for something different. We see this in the amount of scenarios, commentaries, and blogs that are coming out. People talk of whether this is the tipping point we needed to push to a world that is more sustainable, safe, flourishing and equal. Pockets of power that have never discussed a reframing of capitalism now talk of ‘radical reforms’ — and policies such as basic income and robust public health infrastructure are being heralded as obvious solutions. Perhaps we yearn this, because this pandemic has brought directly to our collective doorsteps the frailty of our very existence that we have been trying to keep a stranglehold on.
If we truly want to break from the shackles of our past, we need the imaginings and dreams of another new world, of new normals. But this cannot merely be an existential reflection. We need to go beyond that. However, and this is the fundamental truth of it all — we need to also understand what created those systemic wounds in the first place. And most important of all — we need the political and leadership commitment to a deep rooted overhaul of the institutions and ecosystems that are meant to protect, and uphold public good. As they are designed today, these very institutions and ecosystems are not designed to be fit for the future we are hurtling towards.
To have any kind of chance of flourishing beyond this, we cannot relegate the responsibilities of change and innovation just to the individual and community level. Our public good infrastructures, both local and global need, now more than ever, to legitimise itself in a space of fast decreasing trust of the very structures that are meant to be protecting us all. To achieve this legitimacy, to be the institutions we need them to be — requires not just looking at these new normals merely as exogenous changes but to also consider how the institutions themselves need to transform internally in order to meet these new frontiers.
“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoke skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it” Arundhati Roy
Whilst the fundamentals of the future(s) of humanitarianism, or development continue to be a question we must explore, we must also ask of the future(s) of international organisations that are entrusted with the responsibilities of humanitarian and development work. The institutions that are charged with protecting these public goods cannot meet the realms of our new frontiers if they continue to be embedded in bureaucratic, power concentration, risk averse cultures. Even for those that are working on reimagining the possibilities, it is integral that such efforts consider two baseline assumptions:
Assumption #1: The centrality of the roles, and mandates of international organisation in this fast arriving future
Assumption #2: The understanding and identification of ‘need’, ‘fragility’ or ‘vulnerability’ continued to be narrowed into linear, bordered, easily-digestable frames.
The phrases ‘we didn’t see this coming’ or this is ‘unprecedented’ must never again be accepted. Because this is just fundamentally not true. These events aren’t black swans — over and over again, they have been forecasted, and included in various futures analysis. But they have not been listened to or acted on. The truth is, international agencies have been, and continue to be devastatingly unprepared for any kind of fundamental paradigm shift that completely upends the assumptions they have about their role.
The institutions that were prior to this cannot be the institutions that must be, post this.
To build institutional anti-fragility (to use the terms of Stephen Pimental) we need to go beyond surface level rhetoric of change. It isn’t enough anymore to just call for more funding or for global solidarity. Institutions need to evolve into emergent, learning ecosystems that recognise that the status quo is a shaky terrain, and that work to bring the innovations and experimentation already happening on the periphery of their systems into the core. Internal foresight capabilities, innovation, radical inclusion, adaptive strategy and learnings, is pivotal so that efforts at responding to what is emerging can be done in agility, and not in ways that hinder. Greater anticipatory capacity might allow for these transformations to be realised more efficiently, but it isn’t a panacea all by itself.
I don’t profess in any way to have all of the answers. These are pulled from my experiences as markers that might help as we navigate these terrains:
- Most international humanitarian and development organisations are very good at responding to the fire-fighting of today. As institutions are analysing what new normals might emerge, it is absolutely integral to go beyond the shiny rhetoric of first order impacts and scenarios. To be anti-fragile requires the conscious work of deeper, longer term implications to better understand the social, structural and policy level shifts that might need to occur.
- Acknowledging that new normals are emerging of converging, critical uncertainties — it isn’t happening in isolation. There is a lot we don’t know and we cannot possibly espouse to know, and policy and framework design has to build uncertainty into its very layers. Confusing robust scenario design (that inherently are built on uncertainties) with risk modelling forecasts, falls back on assumption #1 mentioned previously.
- The race to re-framing and re-design programs and services, requires an all of institution transformation. It is not merely about responding to the externalities. It also requires a shift of structure, model, decision making, risk appetite, financing, collaborations, cultures, and internal agility.
- Taking a broader, inter-connected systems approach to new normals, offers the opportunity for institutional influence of what these normals might be, rather than merely reacting to mitigate the negative impacts of what new commons emerge
- Unapologetically embracing radical, intersectional equity. This is no longer a ‘cross-cutting’ issue. Our out-dated assumptions cause blind spots, and those that fundamentally need the most protection get missed, because they are either not considered, or not meaningfully integrated into design. The age of top down saviours is well and truly over.
- Interrogating what has to die so that the right thing can live in institutional redesign, and how to get it to gracefully exit as quickly as possible has to become a common question we ask. Continuing what we have always done because it’s ‘just the way it is’ — without careful consideration — is knowingly irresponsible.
Though what is emerging is leaving the world feeling anxious and fearful, there is a deep opportunity here for international organisations working in the public good, to collectively contour a global narrative that reimagines not just how we live and work together, but fundamentally shifts the structural pillars of how we serve those that need it the most, and each other. We have to be better than this. It is time.