Navigating uncertain times

A World of Worry, a World of Hope

Flux is normal. Throughout history humans have struggled with plagues, war, and political upheaval.

Yet our present uncertain times are different in unprecedented ways. If we don’t feel that our lives are secure, it is because they aren’t. According to UNDP’s latest Human Development Report, we are navigating uncharted waters, caught in the volatile cross currents of dangerous planetary change, sweeping societal transformation, and increasingly polarized societies.

From the punishing and widespread effects of COVID-19 to the food crisis spinning out from climate disruptions and the war in Ukraine, shifting geopolitical orders, and the alarm bells from a planet changing in dangerous ways for people and many form of life, are creating something we have never seen before.

For the first time since we started measuring, the Human Development Index has decreased for two consecutive years, and for more than 90 percent of countries.

The ground beneath our feet is shifting, introducing a new kind of uncertainty for which we have no real guide.

There is a nagging sense that whatever control we have over our lives is slipping away, that the norms and institutions we used to rely on don’t have the answers.



A line graph shows the Human Development Index from 1990 to 2021. The index value begins to decrease at year 2020 for the first time ever.



The new uncertainty

Even before the pandemic, more than six in seven people felt insecure, with insecurity increasing the most in many rich countries, and despite years of progress on the usual measures of wellbeing.

At the same time we live the era of the Anthropocene, where humans have the power to shape the planet, but don’t know how to cope with the consequences of that power.

From soaring temperatures to plunging biodiversity —more than one million plant and animal species face extinction—we are altering the fundamental frame of reference we have lived with for millennia.

How do we live in a world without abundant insects? That has not been tried for about 500 million years, when the world’s first land plants appeared—and the two events were very much connected. Without insects to pollinate plants, we will face mindboggling challenges growing food.

Material cycles have been upended. For the first time concrete and asphalt outweigh the Earth’s biomass. Microplastics pollute the deepest levels of the ocean to the highest mountains, as well as our lungs and blood. A recent report revealed that nowhere on Earth is rainwater safe to drink.

Mass coral bleaching is now ordinary. Once mighty ice packs are being described as ‘sleeping giants’.



People gathering to protest racial injustice.



Frustration and alienation

Political polarization is impossible to ignore. It’s on the rise, fueled by its oldest ally, inequality, working alongside one of its newer friends, social media. Many people, especially the young, feel frustrated by their political leaders. Trust has taken a backseat to suspicion. Across the world fewer than 30 percent of people think that others can be trusted—the lowest on record.

Armed conflicts are also increasing. For the first time more than 100 million people are forcibly displaced, mostly within their own countries.

The Anthropocene is serving up trauma from pandemics to the changing climate or food security.This takes a toll on our mental wellbeing.

COVID-19 has shown us what to expect. During the first year of the pandemic, depression and anxiety increased by more than 25 percent, with those who struggle to afford the basics, and women, who shouldered more unpaid work, being disproportionately affected.

The effects these have on children in particular are profound, altering brain and body development, especially in poorer families, diminishing their chances for the future.


million people

are forcibly displaced, mostly within their own countries.



All is not well, but not lost

A collage of poker chips and playing cards. Text beneath reads: PEOPLE WON’T TRY NEW THINGS IF IT MEANS GAMBLING WITH THEIR FAMILY’S HEALTH AND  EDUCATION.

Development is about change, about charting new paths forward into the unknown, about transforming our world, according to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One of the great lessons of our species is that we can accomplish a lot with very little if we work together.

The report suggests three ways to help navigate—and even thrive—in the new uncertainty complex.

Smart, practical investments remain vital. Everything from renewable energy to preparing for pandemics and natural hazards, investment should ‘connect the dots’ protecting people from shocks, building economic and food security, and promoting national and global public goods.

The report asks what should investments in education and skills look like in the face of the disorienting pace of technological change, including automation and artificial intelligence? Or with the energy transitions that are needed to restructure societies?

Insurance and social protection need to be revitalized, including for those who work in the informal economy. We need to move towards a broader sharing of risk, particularly for universal basic services such as education and health care. This will encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. People won’t try new things if it means gambling with their family’s health and education.

Innovation—technological, economic or cultural—will be at the heart of successfully navigating whatever challenges lie ahead.

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Photo credits

UNDP Georgia; UNDP / Morgana Wingard; UNDP Mauritania; UNDP Ukraine / Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin; UNDP Nigeria.