Shining globe

Imagining future alternatives to humanitarian assistance and development

It is easy to be pessimistic about the state of the world and the state of UK international development. It is tempting to want to go back to some imagined past or to focus our efforts on defending what we still have.

A controversial merger, three rounds of cuts to the ODA budget against a backdrop of a deepening climate emergency, wars and a global hunger crisis have dominated so much of our thinking. Looking around and ahead, the challenges seem to be multiplying and getting more complex. Progress seems harder to achieve.

Back in 2021, deep in the fallout of the UK government’s decision to temporarily suspend its commitment to the 0.7% ODA target, we at Bond decided it was the right time to look for inspiration and innovation. Ongoing work on decolonising development, locally led approaches and narrative change illustrated the need to adapt and hinted at the possibilities for transformation. We put together a group of 20 or so leading thinkers from within the international development world and a few adjacent sectors to grapple with these central questions:

  • What could future alternatives to the current ‘aid and development’ system look like?
  • What ideas, innovations and approaches should be investigated, tested and supported to help us get there?
  • What could the UK’s role be in that?

Over the course of 2022, this group came together to interrogate and process ideas and innovations across four sites of transformation: how ‘international development’ is financed and resourced, how we (as civil society) organise to achieve it, its purpose, and its governance and architecture. We called this process Future Dialogues.

We challenged ourselves and the group to step into an entrepreneurial mindset; to look not at what was wrong but at what was possible, and crucially at the ideas and innovations that could help us realise those possibilities. The process was energising and hopeful. It presented challenges whilst also demonstrating the many options available to the sector to work towards alternative futures. We are now processing the findings and next steps for this work. Until then, here are our key reflections.

There are alternative futures out there, but we need to be brave and lean into them

Throughout this process, we used different futures methods to structure our thinking. Approaches such as the three horizons model helped us to notice and set aside our assumptions about the world by leaving these assumptions on the ‘now’ or ‘first horizon’. We looked for examples of innovation happening around the world that are testing and expanding what’s possible and expanded on these to help us dream bigger and see where there is potential for change.

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Letting go of what we know and stepping into change can be scary. But as a sector, we must be more willing to try new things without knowing for certain that they will work. We need to see where change is occurring and be willing to let go of the status quo to lean into it even if we’re not sure exactly where it will lead.

We have key levers for transforming the system

As a sector, we need to take a more systems-level approach. Creating an equitable, redistributive and sustainable world requires stepping out of our usual areas to also look at the role trade, investment, illicit financial flows, tax, conflict and the economy play. There poses a strong challenge to UK development organisations to examine their contributions to these issues and any implications for their work.

Transforming the system is a big objective, which can seem daunting. But significant opportunities for change exist. The Bridgetown agenda demonstrates the appetite for moving towards a more just global financing system. The COP27 Loss and Damage Fund show what a reparations-based approach could look like. A global asset registry would be a step towards a more just global tax system. A borrowers’ club could rebalance power so that those receiving finance are able to set the terms. These are bold alternatives, but the scale of the challenges demands bold action.

Citizen engagement is key

Shifting power must happen at every level. If we are to build a system that can continue to adjust and reflect the needs of those most impacted, effective citizen engagement is crucial. This will look different depending on the activity and purpose.

This engagement could come through community-owned spaces for decision-making within projects. Or by using participatory democracy to take policy decisions at a municipal, national or international level, or having diverse representation on boards. At the heart of all this is a shift to an approach that centres communities and citizens, so that their leadership and engagement are built into decision-making at a systemic level. This is vital to ensuring the actions taken are legitimate, long-lasting and address the real-world need.

Where next?

A lot has happened since we started this journey almost 18 months ago, but there is still a need for bold, transformative ideas and innovations to reshape international development. We have a better sense of what is out there and an emerging set of possible alternative futures. Over the coming months, we will be refining, stress-testing and rolling out the outcomes. Watch this space.


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