Restoring the dreams of our children: why NGOs need more futures thinking

By Claire Leigh, Director of Child Rights and Governance, Save the Children UK, and Peter Glenday, Director of Programmes and Research, School of International Futures (SOIF)

shutterstock_396707761In September 2019 Greta Thunberg made an emotional speech to world leaders at the UN, climaxing in the now-famous accusation: “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.” That line will rightly haunt us adults as we move through what is widely regarded as the make-or-break decade for both the climate crisis and the UN’s global development goals. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis upon us, there is even more reason to accept Thunberg’s charge of a woeful lack of foresight on the part of this generation of leaders.

Our apparent inability to make good decisions informed by possible futures lies at the heart of the intergenerational crisis of which Thunberg has become the voice. By displacing the costs of our current prosperity – the resource and ecological degradation, the worsening climate conditions – onto future generations, we are quite literally stealing from the future to give to the present. The result is a future which may be ‘unliveable’ for millions of children, as reported by the WHO and UNICEF.

Meanwhile, we can expect the COVID-19 global health emergency and the resulting socio-economic crisis to complicate the resolution of the climate crisis, as well as the achievement of the SDGs.  Foresight practitioners have been warning for decades about pandemics as a major global risk, yet (as this crisis reveals) decision-makers have failed to increase national and international preparedness in response.

As individuals, we regularly take actions to safeguard our own children’s futures, but collectively we seem incapable of doing so. As NGOs we are often no better at basing the decisions we take now on a systematic engagement with the future.

This problem is not new. Eglantyne Jebb, the visionary founder of Save the Children, was keenly aware of the responsibility of the current generation to act on behalf of the next. She wrote: “It is upon the child that humanity builds, and the whole future of civilisation depends upon our response to the appeal of these little ones”. Jebb believed that “our activities on behalf of children have to be something far more well-considered, more comprehensive, more truly scientific, than anything which we have hitherto conceived”.

Writing almost a century ago, she might have easily been describing the need for the kind of foresight tools – horizon scanning, scenario planning and the three horizons framework – to which organisations are increasingly turning as they seek to manage the uncertainties of a fast-changing world.

One century after Jebb founded Save the Children, and in recognition of our unique responsibility to ensure we are creating a present that safeguards the future for children, we have launched a new toolkit, “The Future is Ours”, which offers a set of 12 techniques to help NGOs navigate the present and shape the future. Working with the School of International Futures, we have selected foresight tools widely used in the public and private sectors and adapted them to serve the particular needs of our sector. Four tips stand out to help organisations manage uncertainty: be open to a range of possible futures; pay attention to weak signals; practise foresight regularly; and integrate and embed insights to drive change (in our case, to advance children’s rights).

These foresight tools can be used separately or in combination, to help organisations explore the drivers of change, visualise alternative future scenarios, and understand the implications of possible futures for the policy and operational decisions they make today. The aim is to enable NGOs to both better prepare for, and to influence, the future. The toolkit has been called “immediately essential reading for anyone involved in strategy, planning and decision-making in our sector” by the International Civil Society Centre.

Creating the toolkit is just one of the ways that we at Save the Children have been seeking to build the foresight capability of our teams and the wider sector. Over the past two years we have started to expand our horizons through a series of workshops to introduce a ‘foresight mindset’ into the organisation’s strategy and planning processes. The world is changing fast, and as a sector we haven’t begun to come to terms with some of the trends that will shape our operating environment in the next era, from Artificial Intelligence and technological disruption to the rise of identity politics and the disintermediation of programme delivery. We know that integrating and embedding a longer-term perspective will give our work more enduring impact.

We also know that foresight tools alone are not enough. Whether in NGOs, governments or international organisations, a deep-rooted culture of foresight, where thinking about the long-term future becomes not just accepted but mainstream, is vital to ensure long-termism takes hold. There is also a vital role for civil society here – as well as independent or semi-autonomous bodies such as parliaments and ombudsmen – in holding government decision-makers to account and banging the drum for intergenerational fairness in both policy making and implementation. This is becoming all the more relevant as decision makers across the world struggle with the response to the current crisis and seek to anticipate what the post-COVID-19 world could and should look like, to deliver on the SDGs.

There is still much more that Save the Children, and the sector as a whole, can do to mainstream foresight and ‘futures literacy’ into our work, from programme design to strategic planning. If we can learn to bring the future into our present, we have a chance to redeem ourselves in the eyes of Thunberg and all children – and to restore their dreams in the process.