What the ISS can teach us about national development planning

For the past 20 years there has been a continued presence of people in space, working in orbit on board the International Space Station (ISS). More than 240 individuals from 19 countries have visited the station – the home of scientific discoveries that could not have been made elsewhere as the ISS is the only laboratory where long-duration microgravity research is possible. The origin story of the ISS takes as back to 1998 when fifteen governments decided to collaborate on the design, development, and utilization of the space station. Today, the ISS is arguably one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements and a testament to the power of international cooperation. But it doesn’t stand alone.

International relations are filled with cases of countries, organizations, individuals, and other stakeholders recognizing their mutual interests and building future-oriented plans and activities aimed at achieving common goals. A look into the most ratified treaties in international law tells us that many of the international projects we take for granted today, are very much the result of collaboration, future thinking and partnerships developed among different parties. The activities and organizations that result from these types of collaborative processes are by no means flawless and critics will happily point out the deficiencies, embedded imbalances and other challenges, but the fact remains that their existence is overall beneficial as an engine for progress and the betterment of people’s lives. The process of entering mutually beneficial enterprises between states and other actors have long been recognized by International Relations scholars as “positive sum game” and “win-win” scenarios. By recognizing common interests and adopting a partnership approach, agreements and actions that are mutually beneficial can be born among states.

One can easily transfer these lessons in collaboration, coalitions, and partnerships from the realm of global to national policymaking process. Strategic alliances, partnerships, networking have become particularly relevant in the process of defining “strategic development intentions (and directions)”.  Coalition building allows for different stakeholders to share ownership of the process and consequently of the results, making the goals more attainable and realistic due to a shared sense of responsibility. Today, in an era of increasingly polarized politics, this approach is of significant value. Coalition building can help societies overcome the partisan divide and rally behind common goals for the benefit of all citizens. As stated in the overview of the Finnish “Humble Government” approach to policymaking, “for government to fulfil its pledge to long-term policy-making, it must find new pathways for building political and societal consensus around pivotal challenges.”  

Coalition building, reaching some consensus on governing processes, is one of the principles we would like to see more in our national policymaking as well, both in the design process of public policies and in their implementation. Towards that end, back in December 2020, UNDP published an article advocating for a nationwide strategy for development built on the principles of collaboration, inclusiveness, transparency, adaptability, and expertise, a need made more urgent by  the ongoing pandemic. The complexity of the challenges facing us today demands that we work towards a cross-sectoral and cross-generational development strategy, one that is sufficiently agile to steer a society in unpredictable and ever-changing futures.  

This idea for a National Development Strategy built on these principles is supported by most citizens in North Macedonia, 62% of the respondents (from a nation-wide survey) think that the general public should be included in the process of creating the Strategy, and 89% believe that the strategy can improve their quality of life, if adopted. Citizens also agree that the country needs a future with more decent jobs, quality healthcare and education, good governance and a better standard of living. Another survey done for the Republic of North Macedonia United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework 2021-2025 found that 75% of the citizens consider the creation of a national vision as one of the most urgent priorities for the country. 

So, the central question is: Can we rally behind a common vision to realize these shared priorities?

To answer this question positively, it is crucial to start doing things differently. We will have to redesign the way our public institutions develop and implement their long-term visions and plans for the country and ensure that people are empowered to be the drivers of change, with strong ownership over the processes. 

Counting the beans 

So, how do we co-create a common vision for the future? Where do we start?

First, we need to recognize that social capital has become an essential element of sustainable development. Therefore, the networks of relationships among people in a society such as shared values, trust and collaboration  must be central in the planning process. A study of 107 development plans found that collaboratively created plans with high social embeddedness have improved prospects of successful implementation. Several arguments can be made to support this claim. To start with, inclusivity, leaving no one behind are, morally speaking, the right things to do. Everyone should have a say in shaping the vision for the future, especially those that are the least well off in the present. It is the commitment of all UN member states to end exclusion and build effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels.  If we are to realize the Agenda 2030, there needs to be a truly open space where all segments of society are empowered to provide meaningful contributions and effectively shape priorities and policy.   

Pushing for broad societal participation in national planning is also justified on practical grounds as it has proven to be a more effective approach than relying solely on experts. 
Consider this experiment to illustrate the point: Imagine a room with a big glass jar filled with jellybeans. Visitors are asked to look at the jar and guess the exact number of beans in it. The one that guesses the right number wins the jar. It has been shown that the average of all guesses will be closer to the correct number than any of the individual guesses. In other words, the collective (provided it is sufficiently diverse) is wiser than the individual – an effect that has been demonstrated through the jelly bean experiment and that has been replicated i many others. While long-term national planning is ‘slightly’ more complex than counting jelly beans, collective intelligence has proven itself invaluable in tackling social problems. To understand where we stand as a society, and where we want to be in 20 years, we will have to take in all perspectives. The more diverse the participation, the higher the quality and longevity of the vision. 

Ensuring wide participation however does not guarantee success by itself. In times of
globally declining trust in governments, NGOs, and the media, the pandemic showed that “trust strongly correlated with citizens’ compliance to measures designed to flatten the infection curve” (Bargain and Aminjonov, 2020). Even the most thoroughly thought out policies will fall flat if they are not seen as credible or equally applied. Worse still, lack of trust “nurtures political polarization, and favors the emergence of populist movements” (Devine et al. 2020). Therefore, if it is to succeed in implementation, the National Development Strategy must be developed through a transparent, well designed, organized and communicated process in which national priorities are co-created by a wide range of stakeholders using a credible, future oriented methodology. This ensures broad societal trust, ownership and support for the chosen direction and stimulates citizens to actively contribute as well as safeguard the vision by holding the state accountable for its implementation. 

UNDP and UNHCR decided to reinforce their collaboration to promote a just path to sustainable development reflecting the perspectives of those on the margins. We believe that the core principles outlined in this text would be a small but important step towards creating and implementing a common vision turned into shared goals. The willingness of the Government to prepare a National Development Strategy and its openness to embrace our ideas and support, has been an excellent platform for the United Nations Country Team to propose a tailor made new innovative process for the creation of the strategy, one that is built on a methodology that answers to the latest global developments, and leaves no one behind.

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