Can development respond to the challenge of polycrisis?

Published on 1 February 2023

The phenomenon of multiple crises happening simultaneously is leading to increased inequalities and demanding new approaches to global development, a panel of IDS experts warned yesterday.

With the world slowly emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic at the same time as seeing other crises emerging like rising fuel prices during 2022, plus the ongoing climate crisis, inequality is increasing.

Speaking at the IDS event Recasting Development in 2023, IDS Research Fellow Vidya Diwakar showed how conflict, disaster and extreme poverty is converging on low income and lower-middle income countries. “The challenge we are increasingly facing in many parts of the world is that inequalities within countries are worsening,” she said, using data from Nigeria as just one example, as shown in this graph:

Distress assets sales in Nigeria by welfare quintile

Highlighting a priority for the coming year, she suggested that, “policymakers need to develop long-term solutions, rather than firefighting crises as they emerge.”

Shandana Mohmand, Cluster Leader for Governance at IDS highlighted the continuing trend towards autocracy, and the impact that this was having on civil liberties. “2023 is going to be a year that will follow 16 straight years in which more countries have now autocratised than democratized,” she said. “What I really wanted to point out was the impact on freedom of expression for women…In some ways, autocratisation seems to target women’s groups.”

Looking ahead to 2023, she highlighted the election in Turkey in May as being key – as opposition parties work to build an effective coalition, will the election see an end to President Erdogan’s 20 years in power?

For Anabel Marin, who leads the Business, Markets and the State cluster at IDS, the ability of the capitalist system to put profit above people remains a concern which needs to be addressed. She used the example of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout to demonstrate how capitalist systems enabled publicly funded knowledge to be appropriated for private gain, with huge inequity in vaccine distribution:

The Covid-19 vaccine response: an illustration of capitalism driving inequality

Linked to this, Research Fellow Hayley MacGregor highlighted forthcoming IDS research around pandemic preparedness and the importance in 2023 of global discussions on a new pandemic treaty, to be finalised in 2024. The research will highlight the importance of longer-term system strengthening and community-led responses.

“Conventional approaches that focus exclusively on biomedical silver bullets now most definitively do not seem sufficient to contend with the more complex nature of health challenges,” she said.

But Anabel Marin argued that much of the existing discussion on collaboration around future pandemics is missing the point, when the real challenge that needs addressing is, “how capitalist institutions actually allow a few companies to capture most of the benefits of what was before public knowledge.”

Finally, Research Fellow Shilpi Srinistava suggested that despite slow progress in recent years on climate justice, 2023 could see a moment of rupture which could bring about positive change. “Ruptures can be destabilising, and that is what we are seeing across the world. But they can also be regenerative.”

The slew of policy discussions – including the UN Water Conference in March and September’s Climate Ambition Summit, alongside efforts to build on progress around loss and damage made at COP27, and a host of emerging diverse alliances, give grounds for optimism.

However a change in emphasis in climate justice is required, she argued. “Shocks capture attention, but it’s the everyday precarity driven by systemic inequalities that are at the heart of climate injustice,” she said.

“Climate injustices come from daily stresses, be it with regards to ongoing drought, lack of basic services around water, sanitation and health, and other structural vulnerabilities.”

Summarising these presentations, Peter Taylor, Director of Research offered a note of optimism. “We’re seeing communities as central drivers in finding concrete ways to understand and act upon many challenges, like climate change. They are finding ways to respond to multiple intersecting challenges, whether those are related to environment, energy, health, conflict, food, authoritarianism, political polarisation or a range of other inequalities.”

As IDS Director Melissa Leach noted at the end of the event, the widespread discussion that followed featured not a single mention of aid, despite widespread concern during 2022 about drops in aid budgets. “This is not to say that aid is not important,” she said, “but what we’ve heard today is that development is so much more than that…and it affects everybody, everywhere.”

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