Illuminating the Landscape of Human-scale Policy Outcomes

The World Bank hosted its annual Civil Society Policy Forum last week, and the clear, and very conscious, theme of the meetings was the connection between high-level transparency, stakeholder outreach and the building and securing of a functional and reliable civil society. In recent years, stakeholder outreach has been moving to prominence in the deliberations of global development bodies, like the UN agencies, the World Bank and IMF and the OECD.

In 2005, the OECD established the Paris Declaration for Aid Effectiveness, which sought, in part, to examine the real-life impact on human populations of specific development aid projects. It also, however, set in motion a process of stakeholder outreach and collaboration that works on the principle that collaborative communication and planning should be the rule, not an afterthought, and that doing so will lead to better policy planning and better outcomes.

At the 2011 World Bank Civil Society Forum, a persistent topic of exchange between World Bank, IMF, OECD and other development aid coordinators, was the slippery task of working out the precise value of intangibles—those human-scale resources, assets and opportunities, without which the entire project of development, or indeed of civil society, is unlikely to function. There was frank discussion of the difficulty policy planners and lenders have faced in assigning economic value to intangibles, and an openness to new ideas for how best to achieve this.

One vital observation—shared by a number of attendees, focusing on a diverse array of policy areas—was that the open process of discussion and debate, a sustained emphasis on stakeholder outreach and the direct participation of civil society organizations (CSO), would illuminate the landscape of human-scale policy outcomes, making the often incalculable value of intangibles more concrete, situating them firmly in the center of the planning process.

One of the chief obstacles to socio-economic development of any kind, planned or spontaneous, assisted from outside or rooted locally, is the absence of a vibrant and viable civil society. Without the infrastructure to enable a culture and a custom of citizen participation, the movement of funds is often more a movement of funds than an investment in human-scale development.

The Human Development Index is one example of an attempt to grapple with what macroeconomic analysis has not before been able to estimate. There are other indices and indicators now emerging, as a proposed intellectual and deliberative technology for dealing with these valuations. But the key to structuring them appropriately is openness, and openness must consider and value a number of specific priorities:

  1. The voice of the affected—stakeholders;
  2. The (often counterproductive) intersection between theory and practice;
  3. The impossibility of commodifying certain features of the economic environment;
  4. Dynamics of socioal geography, presence or absence of life-sustaining resources;
  5. The connection between quality of service, morbidity, and opportunity;
  6. The inestimable value of creative solutions, emerging from the grassroots;
  7. The opportunity costs of failing in any of these areas.

There are more considerations that should be considered as top priorities, but they tend to fit into one or more of these categories. (Education, for instance, fits into numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.) The availability of food and water to people in a given “marketplace”, however wide or narrow, may often depend more on the long-term, community-wide dynamic driving the relationship of people to these intangible values, than on any other feature of the economic landscape.

Open discussion with stakeholders, surrenderng planning authority and applicable development strategy adjustment to the developing/developer, dignifying the human beings who will be affected and who must participate with genuine agency in the process of deciding their own destiny—these choices motivate a better, clearer, more precise, more humane and more effective policy environment.

The best tool, then, for illuminating the landscape of human-scale policy outcomes is the free exchange of ideas and the establishing of an active participatory role for stakeholders.

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Originally published September 27, 2011, at Quipu Economic Forum

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