Preparing for the Future: Seeding Anticipatory Governance in the Pacific

Aarathi Krishnan, Strategic Foresight Advisor, UNDP Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific and Revai Makanje Aalbaek, Effective Governance Team Leader, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji

April 28, 2022

Among the testing grounds where we are exploring more future-oriented modes of decision-making with partners is in Pacific Island countries (PICs).

Traditional public policies and governance approaches are based on models which attempt to respond to issues that societies face and based on assumptions that things will unfold as they have in the past. Some of these underlying assumptions relate to the impact of climate risks, the debt crisis post-COVID19, the uneven distribution of technological infrastructure, the increasing concern about digital risks, and potential political unrest. It is important to note that what has served us well up until now, may not be appropriate in the future.  How then can we ensure that our governance approaches take into account a “future time dimension even if its focus is on immediate public concerns”? In more practical terms, how can we ensure that the decisions we make today, take into account potential future impacts. To grapple with this uncertainty requires taking both a long-term perspective and being anticipatory in the face of emerging realities. UNDP Asia and the Pacific is embracing and embedding both the practice of anticipation and foresight into our internal policies and strategic pathways, as well as how we support our partners. We do this to “hedge our bets” on the future, knowing we can no longer rely on static ideas of governance. A much more holistic, adaptive, wider metropolis that proactively identifies emerging risks, opportunities and changing tides is the only way in which we can ensure our policies are fit not just for today, but for tomorrow. It is how we stop being taken by surprise.

Putting theory into practice in the Pacific

Among the testing grounds where we are exploring more future-oriented modes of decision-making with partners is in Pacific Island countries (PICs). Issues like geographic isolation, capacity constraints, and frequent government turnover render policy continuity and coherence particularly challenging for many PICs. Governments have immense responsibility when it comes to delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals and upholding human rights. Yet, over-emphasis on the short-term, amplified by traditional planning mechanisms, severely limits opportunities for the deep, structural reform required.

We have also seen the costs of short-term planning on peace agendas and social contracts in the Pacific. Many countries still rely on old governance systems, policies, and legislation, sometimes dating back many decades, that are unfit to deal with today’s challenges, much less future development risks and shocks. There is limited space to iterate approaches as the policy environment changes, or as the priorities and needs of communities evolve. This is one of the biggest sources of disconnect between institutions and citizens: a failure to anticipate and adapt in line with the emerging future.

We are not alone in acknowledging this gap. Our partners like the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the Pacific Community (SPC) and the World Bank, among others, are undertaking a similar inquiry. This includes building foresight capabilities to strengthen long-term thinking within regional development strategies and research.

Building on what exists, with the support of the RBAP Strategy, Policy, and Partnerships (SPP) team and the Accelerator Lab, the UNDP Pacific Office has embarked on a journey to identify the processes, structures, and mindsets by which we might develop more forward-looking and adaptive governance mechanisms in the Pacific. Knowing that there is no single best practice or silver bullet approach to anticipatory governance, we have started with a year-long process of action research, learning our way into insights and opportunities alongside our partners. 

Our approach: big goals, small steps

Supporting our partners to move from a reliance on static five-year plans and immediate outcomes, to institutionalized decision-making processes that take a long-term perspective, weigh the implications of many possible futures and make adjustments along the way, requires more than new tools and methods. It calls for a fundamental shift in the culture, mindsets, and accountability structures of existing governance contexts. And yet, systemic change has to start somewhere.

Our baby steps in this ambitious journey have taken the form of small-scale pilots. We’ve been asking ourselves a different set of questions applying forward-looking approaches, defined together with government and civil society actors. We’re not there yet but we hope that our current work will lead to decision-making processes empowered to embed future-fit thinking where needed. From using foresight to inspire new programming areas and inform the collaboration arrangements of a civil society network, to supporting analysis of future trends and scenarios within the prioritization process of a ministerial strategy, the pilots enable us to tailor approaches to the unique planning objectives, local cultures, and risk appetite of different groups.

In a way, we’ve been building a portfolio of foresight experiments. We’re trying not to do this alone and we’re already seeing Pacific partners taking the lead, developing capacity and thought leadership, cultivating long-term thinking across the region. The Pacific, a region used to visualise a future impacted by climate change, could position itself too as a leader defining anticipatory governance – something we’re looking forward to accompany.

Ultimately, this work is about leaving behind what no longer works from the past so that PIC governments and communities can move beyond states of perpetual catch up, into development futures that they have prepared for, envisioned, and intentionally created.

This blog is part of the UNDP RBAP Strategy, Policy and Partnership (SPP) unit’s “UNDP Strategic Foresight & Anticipatory Offer" Series. See the first post here for insights into our overall work and approach.