Sample Collection in old Wall City of Ahmedabad by health staff in the wake of Covid - 19
Sample Collection in old Wall City of Ahmedabad by health staff in the wake of Covid - 19.

What might 2021 hold?

The 2020s could see us transition into a world of ever more destabilising shocks, or towards a configuration of the systems we rely on based on goals of equity, sustainability and resilience.

The Future of Sustainability, Forum for the Future

Happy New Year everybody. Given the turbulence of 2020 it might be churlish to try to predict what will happen in 2021.

It pays to reflect on what could be coming up and ensure that we are agile and resilient in our response. At best, it gives us the opportunity to transform for the better.

I see five major themes and questions that will shape the year for the sector, outside major geo-political changes like a new president in the US and significant elections in several other countries. The themes reflect the transitions that we identified in 2020 and are critically interlinked.

1. Covid-19 year two and building back better

Whilst the vaccines give us reasons to be hopeful, the coronavirus pandemic is still going to define this year. Suggestions that the UK could be back to normal by Easter seem optimistic. We need to be planning for an ongoing health and economic crisis. The new variants show that it is far from in control in the UK and the US, and cases continue to rise in the places where we work.

There will be wrangling, delays and, in some cases, opposition to vaccine rollout. This will cause tensions – with countries closing borders to keep out different strains of the virus and allowing travel based on whether people have been tested or vaccinated. We are already hosting the “Civil Society 7 summit” online, as part of the G7, but it could mean that Joe Biden’s first visit to the UK is virtual.

We will be counting the economic cost of Covid-19 in the UK and globally for years to come. This decade will be dominated by managing the recovery – it will be the focus of governments, multilaterals and is the centrepiece for the G7 in June.

Right now, “build back better” seems hollow. It is more focused on getting back to normal, rather than offering a real chance at a redefining the economy so that it delivers for people and planet. There is little reference to the SDGs, which could provide the framework for recovery and address the inequities that the pandemic has highlighted.

But there are reasons for hope – Hawaii has committed to a feminist economic recovery, Amsterdam is using doughnut economics to shape rebuild, the World Economic Forum in Davos this summer is focused on ‘the great reset’ and China is researching a ‘Gross Ecosystem Product’ to complement GDP.

This is the biggest opportunity in a generation to redefine our economic system, and what it targets and rewards. But it requires real leadership – and it is not clear who might step up, especially with significant figures like Angela Merkel departing. I fear we might miss a critical rebuild moment in 2021, but we will be working hard to advocate for the right kind of recovery.

2. Climate and environment

2021 is going to be a major year for action on climate change. The Climate Summit (COP 26) hosted in Glasgow is a significant opportunity to make progress for people living in poverty, as well as for the planet. I am optimistic that we will make some progress. The UK commitment to end support for overseas fossil fuel projects in December was a good sign, and the US will be at the table having promised to join the Paris agreement again.

Whether we make enough progress to avert dangerous climate change, and generate enough climate finance, particularly for adaptation and forest loss, is more in the balance, although perhaps climate investment of US$27 trillion over the next 30 years looks more feasible, compared to the US$20 trillion of pandemic stimulus packages.

What is clear is that significant new steps are imperative and so mobilisation across diverse groups, including supporters for aid and development, aimed at driving progress at the COP, and at the G7 before it, will be a critical opportunity.

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With youth representation baked into G7 and COP26 processes, intergenerational fairness should also come to the fore. Wales already has a representative for future generations at the table for key policy decisions and Portugal is looking at how to understand the impact of policy decisions on different generations. If taken seriously, it could make a big contribution to what happens in Glasgow.

Climate change should not be viewed in isolation, but as part of an integrated system with soils, oceans, biodiversity and social justice. 2021 is also the start of the UN decade of Ecosystem Restoration and also the renegotiation of the Convention on Biological Diversity. There are further opportunities for a green deal for people and nature here as the world starts to focus on post-Covid recovery later in the year.

3. Defining the UK’s role in the world

2021 is the year when the UK starts to redefine its role in the world outside the EU, including hosting two major international summits. It is doing so in a more complex and multi-polar world, with China playing an ever-stronger role – particularly if the Belt and Road initiative is factored into the African Continent Free Trade Area (AFCTA), and ongoing US-China tensions.

Technology will also play a significant part, including large platforms like Google and Amazon yielding increasing power, and AI, communications and surveillance technologies likely to advance quickly following the “tech-celeration” in 2020 which occurred to tackle the pandemic.

The delivery of the aid and development budget is a core part of the UK’s global influence. It shows that Britain will play its part in making vaccines accessible, in humanitarian response, in supporting countries to help vulnerable and marginalised groups and in tackling global challenges like pandemics and climate change.

This could all be undermined as Parliament vote on a proposed, temporary cut to 0.7% and changes to the International Development Act. However, this is far from a forgone conclusion. There are a significant number of people in parliament and beyond who want the UK to maintain its standing in the world.

Whilst many of the decisions in the budget have pre-determined its outcomes, the result of the Integrated Review will still be important as it underpins the UK’s overall approach and provide a clear, combined strategy for defence, diplomacy and development. I am not sure that the Review is going to deliver the rethink we need, one that address key issues like aid to Middle Income Countries, and so we may well be working with ongoing confusion, a lack of clear strategy, little consultation and a shift from well-established soft power to a retraction of our responsibilities to the most vulnerable people.

The other critical part of this is trade. We have a scant agreement with the EU, although cooperation on development issues still needs resolving. The deals that the UK does with other countries will reflect the UK’s future ‘principles’. The deal with Turkey, that came into effect on 1 January, does not bode well. It lacked any parliamentary scrutiny and fails to leverage any human rights improvements in return for tariff free access to the UK market.

Simply rolling over existing arrangements with leaders with contentious human rights records, with no safeguards, is a dangerous missed opportunity. This is especially important in a Covid world that has seen a regression in human rights, media freedoms and opposition in many places.

4. Equity, inclusion and sector transformation

In response to Black Lives Matter and other pressure groups highlighting systemic racism in every part of British society, many of us have had to look hard at our own organisations. A lot of NGOs made commitments or signed up to charters to be actively anti-racist as a result.

2021 will be the year where we need to deliver on these commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion. We will also see greater focus on the sector overall and increased pressure to decolonise development. Given the geopolitical changes and the UK’s role in the world transforming, change will be inevitable – so there will be an acceleration moment for locally and nationally led solutions.

At Bond we are looking at the practice of anti-racism in organisations and at locally led approaches and shifts in power. The truth is that for us to really decolonise development we need to look at our industry differently. We hope to see a breakthrough in practical responses that fulfil commitments, this year.

5. The post-pandemic NGO

In 2021 we are all going to be reassessing how our organisations work. Many Bond members have shown their resilience and weathered the first storm of the virus. But there will be less resources available in 2021 due to the economic recession, cuts to the UK aid budget and other factors. We know that many charities do not have substantial reserves to fall back on, and that, for some, circumstances are dire.

We’re going to have to think creatively. I anticipate greater need for partnerships, for alliances and mergers as part of the serious reworking of business models. Bond is primed to support those conversations and practicalities.

We are also going to be continuing to work differently. Once we can safely return to the office, many of us are going to adopt hybrid office models, with a stronger mix of remote work and coming together for key events. This requires greater transparency, clarity of decision making and autonomy for leaders throughout our organisations.

It also requires a massive focus on wellbeing – which is going to be defining for organisations in 2021. We will need to manage the trauma of the crisis, the loss of lives, alongside ongoing isolation and the lack of control that people are experiencing.

The overall picture presents a year full of headwinds and uncertainty for international development. Each of these themes, and how they interlink, will require us to think differently. There are opportunities too and we need to draw on ideas and resources from outside the sector to succeed. Bond is committed to influencing, rethinking, collaborating and supporting our members and the wider sector throughout the year.