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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Building a More Resilient Society

We live in the most complex, uncertain and hyper connected epoch in human history. Interdependence of financial and supply chains present monumental challenges for global stability.

In 2007 US Subprime mortgages tanked Asia’s hottest IPO markets, devastated European banks and hit global hedge funds in emerging markets. According to the World Economic Forum fragile economies, unsustainable debt and environmental degradation are the big risks facing the global economy in 2013.

For Africa, this reality presents a new development context shaped by uncertainty, risk. Vulnerability in one country begets vulnerability in others in ways that were hitherto unimaginable. Socio-economic instability and ecological degradation in a single country inevitably reverberates throughout the continent.

Convergent economic and environmental challenges will continue to have dramatic impacts on millions of Africans, jeopardizing progress toward poverty reduction, eradication of chronic hunger and disease control. High food, energy and commodity prices, persistent income inequality, climate change and environmental degradation cast a long shadow on our collective prosperity.

Public policy is the best mechanism we have designed to deal with collective challenges. Policies are broad statement of purpose and process for addressing a particular social, economic or environmental issue. The intent of policy is implemented through regulatory, economic, expenditure and institutional tools.  American philosopher, John Dewey, argued that policies must be treated as experiments, with the aim of promoting continual learning and adaptation in response to experience over time.

Whether the goal is to address infant mortality or free education or water and sanitation or energy or agriculture or conservation, policy-and decision-makers face significant uncertainty. Policies that cannot perform effectively under dynamic and uncertain conditions face the risk of not achieving the intended purpose, and undermining the capacity of societies to cope with or adapt to change.

In a world fraught with uncertainty we need a resilience approach to policy design and implementation. The concept of resilience first appeared in ecological lexicon with C. S. Holling’s seminal paper, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems” in 1973. Resilience is the capacity for adaptive renewal through transformation and reorganization after disturbance.

Resilience has emerged as an important organizing idea when thinking about policy and management action appropriate to the magnitude of risk and uncertainty we face today. The theme the just concluded 2013 World Economic Forum was “Resilient Dynamism”. Resilience is now widely used to communicate the idea that a society or economy or ecological systems have the capacity to absorb shocks and disturbances with minimal disruption.

Resilience thinking in policy design and implementation is really about an adaptive approach, which takes into account the fact that the future is not knowable and manageable. An adaptive approach to policymaking understands and appreciates dynamics, uncertainty and complexity of socio-economic and ecological interactions.

An adaptive approach to policymaking could make societies and economies more resilient to external shock and supple in response to rapid change and surprise. Some policy scholars have suggested that we should treat policy making as gardening: muddy, attentive and experiential, because we have no idea what growing conditions will prevail.

I argue that public policy must be designed to be more flexible and adaptive, to respond to unanticipated conditions in order to reduce the risks of policy failure as foundational assumptions of their design come against the headwinds of change.

Building adaptive policy is not the task of a single actor or a single sector, no matter how innovative. Rather, building adaptive public policy, which, are resilient over time, requires building foresight, forging coalitions across society, decentralizing decision authority and committing to continual learning.  

The capacity of a policy to adapt to anticipated and unanticipated conditions can be facilitated using some simple process mechanisms.
1.     Integrated foresight planning and analysis: Identifying multiple drivers, which determine policy design is critical to understanding how the implementation and targeted outcomes might evolve across a range of contexts.

2.     Multi-stakeholder consultation: Collaborative processes strengthen policy design by providing a comprehensive understanding of key drivers and recognizing common values, identifying shared commitment and anticipating emergent issues

3.     Enabling decentralization: Decentralizing of the authority and responsibility for decision-making to the lowest effective and accountable unit of governance can enhance policy responsiveness and relevance to the local context.

4.     Continuous learning: Regular review, even when the policy is delivering its objectives, and the use of well-designed indicators can strengthen monitoring, and inform policy learning and continual adaptation.

The imperative to reconcile economic, social and environmental wellbeing has never been more urgent. Moreover, the condition under which policy-makers must work has never more complex and uncertain. We must therefore face the future differently by building a resilient society; a society that responds to change and crisis through continual learning, adaptive renewal and reorganization. 

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