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How do you prepare for an uncertain future?

by Lindsey Jones, ODI | @L_P_Jones | Overseas Development Institute
Friday, 21 March 2014 13:00 GMT

A worker at the British Museum arranges the Lewis Chessmen on a chess board in London on March 16, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Games to try out options, winning political buy-in and recognising that changes takes time all are key

Just how well-equipped is the development sector to deal with uncertainty? And what could we do to prepare it for future change?

We know that development planning is often heavily oriented toward the near-term, with little room for manoeuvre or contingency. In addition, planning cycles rarely run beyond three- to five-years. Many of these shortcomings are as familiar to the operational environments of non-governmental organisations as they are to the activities of national and local governments or donor agencies.

One option, proposed by the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance, is to promote Flexible and Forward-looking Decision Making (FFDM).

It’s not the catchiest name in the world, but the thinking behind it is that FFDM can help organisations achieve the structural changes they need to better deal with future change and uncertainty.


Our recent paper  goes into detail on how we can make it happen. But in short, FFDM means:

  • Recognising that change will happen and requires adaptation (even if the direction is uncertain)
  • Assessing the impacts of different drivers of change on development trajectories
  • Identifying enablers and initiating steps to overcome barriers to adaptation.
  • Making changes to structures and planning processes to implement adaptation effectively (incremental or transformational)

As a basic concept, FFDM is relatively straightforward to understand. However, it is often hard to communicate and relate to complex real-world problems. The African Climate Change Resilience Alliance therefore needed to find a way of translating an abstract term into tangible processes and tools. To do this the programme developed a game, and linked it to reflection sessions so that participants could relate game-play to their day-to-day activities in the real world.

This approach was trialled in three Africa countries: Uganda, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. In so doing, the resilience alliance sought to investigate two main questions:

  1. Whether FFDM is of value to local and national policy-makers
  2. Whether innovative and interactive tools are effective in promoting FFDM (or other conceptual approaches to supporting development)

After two years of research and capacity building, those findings are documented in a new Overseas Development Institute report.

The research highlights three key lessons:

 1. Understanding the context is crucial: Any initiative that aims to encourage better planning and decision-making needs to be mindful of the complex political situations that local and national policies operate within. For example, a key determinant of the success of the resilience alliance’s activities in all three countries was the ability to secure political buy-in from local leadership and to identify suitable ‘champions of change’.

2. Investing in better communication can bring development dividends: Communicating an abstract concept is difficult (whether that’s FFDM or resilience), but a ‘game-enabled reflection’ approach can help decision-makers understand the need for change and how to go about putting it into practice.

The alliance’s approach showcased practical ways to deliver change while working within the current system. Indeed, it even spurred on new partnerships: creating closer links between the National Meteorological Office and district governments in Uganda for better uptake of seasonal and decade-long weather forecasts.

3.  Recognising that delivering meaningful change will take time and resources: Organisational structures, mind-sets, and the incentives facing development actors are deeply ingrained and often slow to change.  Encouraging organisations to better deal with future change and uncertainty will, in many cases, require transformation and an overhaul of current practices.

This often translates into considerable financial and time investments to support such a transition (even something as seemingly trivial as a game can take many months to design and test). To some extent this is a welcome challenge, as safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that new policies are indeed better than the old ones (and without rushing to encourage transformation simply for the sake of it).

The resilience alliance’s findings show that reforming planning processes to better deal with future change and uncertainty is not easy. Games won’t change the world. But they are a start. They help people to break down the complexities of the real-world, identify the basic problem and work towards solution. We need more such innovations.

Lindsey Jones is a researcher working on issues of climate change, adaptation and development for the Overseas Development Institute. An ODI public event on March 26, 2014, will debate how well-equipped the development sector is to deal with uncertainty and what might prepare it for future change.