What should every policy maker have at the front of their mind when working on sustainable development?

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12 June 2017

Erin Beck

This is the question I struggle with the most because I am actually pretty pessimistic about policy-makers' likelihood to engage in deep learning - not because they are malicious or willfully ignorant but because they are human beings that engage in cognitive shortcuts, are influenced by their own experiences and knowledge and see the world through those eyes, and have multiple goals beyond development - including feeling like they are making a difference, keeping their jobs, attracting funding, maintaining prestige, etc. This reality makes meaningful learning difficult in the sphere of development.

There are two organisational sociology concepts that Alnoor Ebrahim uses in his work on development institutions that I leverage in my work on NGOs - single-loop and double-loop learning. Single loop learning is about learning to improve projects or standard operating procedures so they are slightly better in the next round - so failure might actually inspire more projects in the future rather than discontinuing them. Double loop learning is about questioning the underlying value of the project itself or power dynamics that are at its foundation. Development as a global industry is very good at single loop learning, but pretty terrible at double loop learning.

We need to start thinking about how to change that, but it'll be difficult because it means people admitting they might not have the expertise to address a problem, and that they should, in essence, be put out of work. That's an uncomfortable reality and a level of cognitive dissonance most people are not able to deal with. So I guess rather giving policy-makers a "fix" or concrete piece of advice, I'd like to leave them with a couple of questions with which they should grapple: How can we encourage "deep" or double-loop learning in development? When there are disappointing results or gaps between policy and practice, how can we encourage scholars and practitioners to question the value of a project’s fundamental goals, meanings, and even its existence, rather than merely ask how that project can be improved? How can we encourage funders, policy-makers, workers, and even researchers to incorporate diverse categories and modes of evaluation, derived from the multiple perspectives inevitably involved in any given development projects, as messy as this process may be - and even if it puts them out of work? How can we encourage policy-makers to realize that their knowledge, worldviews, and skills might not be relevant, as uncomfortable as that might make them?


Kathryn Hochstetler

I tell my students, you need to think about the fact that most of the things you have learned about how to do development are probably not going to work so well as we enter this next phase of climate change. The whole basis of all economic activity and its environmental effects are now going to be different. Most of them will be worse, maybe a few will be better. But what works for us now, isn’t going to work for us in the same way in the future.

So we need policy skills that deal with unfamiliar situations that perhaps we’re used to dealing with once every one-hundred years, but not annually. So I think policy-makers need to be much more flexible and responsive, and accept that policy prescriptions of the past may not work in the future. 


Sri Suryani

What has been missing from policy is the translation of ‘sustainability’ on specific localities and the re-imagining of the city-making process. This means reconfiguring our urban networks, and specifically the way different parts of the city relate to one another. The term 'sustainability' has to be grounded by the quintessential vision of the city, where development understands everyone within the urban environment as equal beings. I think this task lies in the role of planners and architects, to understand the socio-spatial dimension of the city as being plural, where on part is different from another, yet still intertwined through both tangible and intangible networks. They need to engage in creating spaces for equality in the city-making process, especially with local people, the citizens who experience the city in everyday life, before and after the ‘sustainable’ was born and translated into programs and actions. In the case of Jakarta, where democracy was introduced in the early 2000s, we have a long way to go, and therefore have to carefully balance the means with the ends when it comes to this development process.


Max Spoor

Very few policy makers are really working on sustainable development. In fact, most of them are part of a state that facilitates the capitalist system to function, which means that they can (and will) only take marginal measures towards sustainable development.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, they can change the system, then they should first and foremost try and change the unsustainable logic of production, which is based on making a product (which we often do not need), market it, possess it (and maybe use it), and finally discard it. Policy makers should stimulate the kind of production that is responding to current needs (not artificially created demand), produced with renewable energy, and looking at future recycling.

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