1 Feb 2017 | Mission East

Futurologists: Fast, hitech aid can prevent future conflicts

What will aid work be like in 25 years? Mission East has interviewed two Danish futurologists, each with their own point-of-view. One of them believes in self-help via the internet and new technology, the other predicts that there will be more speed and flexibility in aid. Both, however, agree that aid organisations will be needed in the future.

By Svend Løbner, freelancejournalist

It is difficult to make predicitions, especially about the future. Nevertheless, two futurologists are attempting to do so. In this article, they talk about big global trends, requiring a quick and flexible response combining expertise, cultural understanding and new technology. One thing is clear: Aid organisations like Mission East will still be needed in 25 years.

More peace or more wars

The two futurologists have different views of the future. Klaus Mogensen from the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies believes that there will be fewer wars, and fewer poor and sick people in the future. He refers to statistics that show that the world today is more peaceful than it has been for the past 100 years. Marianne Levinsen of the Centre for Future Studies predicts more wars. She notes that the distribution of power in the world is unstable and that no major powers want to become involved in regional conflicts which will therefore tend to escalate.

But both researchers agree that aid organisations like Mission East will still be relevant, especially if there is a need to respond quickly, adapt to changing conditions, understand the local culture, help people to help themselves and prove that aid works. People have seen enough images of hungry children; they want positive stories about real change.

Fewer war deaths

So how will the world look in 25 years? “Generally, there is more peace in the world now than ever before,” Klaus Mogensen said. He noted that “statistics show that the number of deaths around the world has fallen over the past 100 years. At present, there is war in and around Syria, and many people are dying, but it is still nothing compared to what we have seen earlier. I am thinking of the Second World War, the Korean War and the recurring conflicts in Africa and other places.”

He added: ”Generally speaking, fewer people are starving than ever before. Many diseases that previously led to disasters have been eradicated. Even though there are many poor people in the world, there are less than there were 50-60 years ago, even just 20 years ago. New technology helps many poor people escape poverty. Many of the causes of war – famine, disease, extreme poverty – are little by little being eradicated.”

More people in need

Marianne Levinsen is less optimistic: ”I see a world of many more conflicts and many more interests, because no major powers are really calling the shots anymore. Instead, many different actors want to have power, and many nations and subgroups within nations demand that their rights and interests are respected.”

She does, however, admit that ”more and more people in developing countries are escaping poverty” and that “the global middle class is growing at an explosive rate.” “But right now, we are living in times of change, and we do not really know how the world’s leaders will share power between them,” she said and added that “over the next 10-15 years I expect more refugees and more people in need because of conflicts.”

A need for more emergency aid

This means that there will still be a need for major aid operations, Marianne Levinsen believes. “When states withdraw or stay out of conflicts, the people who are persecuted or displaced are extremely dependent on the interest of others in their situation. Otherwise, they will be left to themselves,” she said and specifically mentioned Afghanistan where Mission East works.

”There is no doubt that a country like Afghanistan will need aid for many years to come. It has been at war for years, and this does not look like stopping any time soon. The civilian population will still be subjected to failed policies, corruption and poverty.”

Greater polarisation between rich and poor

Klaus Mogensen agrees that more aid will be required in the future, but for completely different reasons: ”Even if the world as such becomes richer, there is also a certain level of polarisation between rich and poor. Until now, the poor countries have become richer at a faster pace than the rich countries, but within rich and poor countries, the gap between rich and poor is growing. Evidently, a strong level of polarization lead to more social unrest. So the difference between rich and poor can lead to civil wars and revolutions that will require more emergency relief.”

He imagines that aid can be brought directly to families in distress by drones. Today, drones are already used to find and detonate landmines, so why not used them to deliver aid? This requires an alliance with big technology firms so that the enemy is not able to ruin the relief effort by attacking it with its own drones.

“It will be hitech against hitech in the future,” he predicts.

Internet access empowers people

The risk of unrest and war is lower, if the difference between rich and poor is smaller. In this sense, emergency relief and long-term development aid are inextricably connected. In Klaus Mogensen’s opinion, it is important that aid organisations involve and empower people in developing countries:

“You should help people help themselves. Internet access would be of enormous benefit to a lot of people. If tablets with solar chargers are placed in poor areas, the children teach themselves how to use them. In fact, they become so proficient that they can hack them after six months!

When poor people get access to resources on the internet and to markets where they can sell electronic services or arts and crafts or other stuff, a wealth of opportunity opens up to them,” he says and mentions technological aid to small farms as a means for developing countries to feed their own citizens.

We can feed twice as many

Klaus Mogensen stresses that there must still be food and medicine for everyone. “But the problem is not lack of food; the problem is that we don’t distribute it properly. War and conflicts prevent emergency aid from reaching its destination. If we can distribute food better, we can feed almost twice as many people as there are in the world today.”

While Klaus Mogensen is focusing on technology, Marianne Levinsen considers aid in a broader perspective. “Flexibility and a willingness to change are decisive factors. We cannot predict exactly what will happen and where it will happen. A relief organisation must have a cultural understanding and approach. You need to spend time familiarising yourself with conditions in the place you are operating in. You need to focus on culture, history and traditions in the specific country to be able to make a positive contribution.”

Politicians should remove debt and trade barriers

Finally, Klaus Mogensen has some advice for western politicians: ”Instead of giving aid, you could reduce developing countries’ debt to the western world. For each Euro developing countries receive in aid, they must repay five Euros or more as debt repayment. This is just untenable!”

Trade barriers should also be removed, he believes: ”It is hard for Africa to export to Europe because we have barriers for food imports to protect our agricultural sector. If we removed those trade barriers, it would do a lot more good than direct aid. So remove debt and barriers instead of giving them money that they have to pay back as debt repayments.”

The ball is in play. It is difficult to predict the future, but with each their views on current megatrends, the futurologists have given us a few pointers.

The original Danish language version of this article was published in a special edition of the Mission East magazine to commemorate the organisation's 25-year Jubilee in November 2016.