2020: the year the world turned inside out

John Young reflects on highs and lows of a challenging year and discusses the importance of supporting equitable knowledge ecosystems in various scenarios for the future.

2020 has certainly been a challenging year, first the COVID-19 pandemic then in the UK, where INASP is based, the merger between DFID and the FCO, and development budget cuts.

While the merger and budget cuts have meant we have had to scale back and slow down some of our UK funded project work, we have not been as badly affected as some UK-based organisations. But I fear the bigger challenge is still to come, and it’s not just about funding, it’s also about UK reputation within the global international development environment.

The COVID-19 crisis has also had a dramatic impact on our work. We have been working entirely virtually for the last nine months. But travelling less, collaborating with partners through online, technology enhanced approaches to capacity development is an important part of our new strategy. So the restrictions of COVID-19, have, in fact, created a great opportunity to learn even more about how to do this well, and to make our experience with online learning available to others.

But the pandemic is also exacerbating existing inequities in knowledge systems, and is accelerating changes in relationships between Northern and Southern agencies. Strong equitable partnerships have been core to our own mission for a long time, but, as Debapriya Bhattacharya and Sarah Sabin Khan explain in their blog, it could easily go the wrong way. This has forced us to think more about our own role, how we do our work, and how we need to continue to change if we are to remain relevant and useful.

We did a lot of horizon scanning and context analysis during our strategy refresh last year – but we had not anticipated the world changing this fast! So we recently commissioned Jennie Richmond and Matt Jackson at Impact Works Associates to facilitate a series of workshops to test our strategy and see how it might play out in various different – and somewhat extreme – versions of the future. Our aim was to create a “sand-pit” within which to imagine the different types of work and different relationships we might need to be able to continue to contribute towards ensuring that research and knowledge are at the heart of development.

Matt and Jennie helped us to come up with four different scenarios of the future:

Scenario 1: In 2030, populist and nationalist movements have continued their sweep into power…. across many of the world’s countries, bringing in authoritarian policies, using technology to spread disinformation and confusion. Research is only used by governments for their own political ends and universities’ research is constrained to that supporting political decisions; Independent think tanks rely on civil society organisations to use their research to inform advocacy work.

Scenario 2: In 2030, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in full swing…Technology reaches into all areas of our personal and professional life. Since the reimagining of traditional education after 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, education has been transformed, open access is the norm and the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) movement has democratised knowledge to such an extent that people now go online to learn as default.

Scenario 3: In 2030, Southern countries have risen to become key players in the world – fuelled by leapfrog technologies and an economic boom, rapid expansion of online education, green economic models and continued post-COVID-19 economic recessions in the global north. Knowledge, evidence and science are highly valued, accessible to all and solutions to global problems are increasingly led from the global South.

Scenario 4: In 2030, the world is still recovering from the long fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic and political hardships continue as governments try to balance the books and win back people’s trust. Societies and institutions especially in the Global South have reverted to the ‘old normal’; academia is increasingly elitist, and economic development is stalled.

We recognised that, the future is more likely to contain a multiplicity of scenarios,  than settling squarely within one of these rather extreme versions, but it was reassuring to see that our vision and mission remains vital in all of them. Our equitable knowledge ecosystem concept provided a useful framework to guide our work and decision making in each version of the future – although we would be doing very different things in each different scenarios. It was also reassuring that many of the elements of our current strategy will help us in all of them, especially:

  • Communicating our values, mission and the equitable knowledge ecosystem concept clearly to donors, partners and other stakeholders to generate interest, enthusiasm to collaborate and funding opportunities.
  • Expanding and strengthening our network of associates and partners so that we can support context-, and sometimes politically sensitive work in the Global South efficiently, effectively and economically.
  • Investing in our online technology and capacity, and delivering more and more appropriate services to a wider range of stakeholders.
  • Collaborating more with a wider range of other Northern and Southern organisations in a more diverse way to build a broader coalition for change.

We decided to explore this further in our recent Board, Advisers, Associates and Staff workshop – the first of what we hope will be an annual event bringing together the wider INASP family to help guide our work. We thought the “bounce back to normal” scenario was pretty much business as usual so we decided to ignore that one and split into three groups to answer the question “how would we support evidence production and evidence use in the world imagined in this scenario?” in each of the other three.

We recognised elements of Scenarios 1 and 2 everywhere already, but while some Southern countries are emerging as global leaders in some areas (Scenario 3), the combination of global political and economic structures, coupled with national political economies, mean that many are held back.

  • In Scenario 1 (Populist nationalist takeover) we might focus on supporting academics and citizen’s groups to work together to ensure that research-based evidence is used in decision-making, even if that is through advocacy rather than policy dialogue, and to help them to counter misinformation and disinformation. We could provide training and tools to help them to adapt to this new context, to evaluate the quality of evidence and connect them with local and global networks.
  • In Scenario 2 (A world transformed by technology) we might help universities to evolve ethical approval for new methods to collect new types of data, and (as we are doing already) help parliaments to access and use data. We could do more to help the media to assimilate different sources of evidence and help journals to accommodate new types of data and data collection methods and develop next-generation peer-review and publishing norms. Could we use AI and machine learning to provide tailored support to much wider audiences?
  • In Scenario 3 (The rise of the South) we will need to focus our efforts in the most disadvantaged countries and with the most disadvantaged groups in those countries. If there is sufficient capacity in the South maybe INASP should be prepared to shut down and hand over its resources to Southern partners or consider working on the gender, disability, wealth, educational and opportunity inequities in the knowledge sector in Northern countries.
  • Whichever of these scenarios, or others, emerge we will need to continue to work together and extend our existing networks to access resources and get things done and build the wider coalition. And with increasing capacity in the South (not least among our partners, associates and advisers) INASP’s role may need to change – to become more of an adviser, facilitator and connector than implementing projects.

It was great, at the end of such a difficult year to find such enthusiasm and resolve among our Board, Advisers, Associates and Staff that what we are doing is worthwhile, and that we can continue to work together to keep research and knowledge at the heart of development whatever happens.

And I would also like to thank all of our partners and funders and Matt and Jennie and reach out to the wider coalition of people and organisations committed to the same cause.

Let’s do more together in 2021.

Cover image courtesy of https://www.pngegg.com/en/png-ygzjo

John Young
Executive Director, INASP

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