CHANG MAI — Dr. Tim France is the founder of Inis Communication, a scientist, and a leader in sustainable development thinking. He is based out of Chang Mai, Thailand. Originally from the UK and closely associated with the World Health Organization. Tim specifically chose Chang Mai because he wanted to be based where there were visible health and development challenges. He was working on HIV when he moved to Thailand 15 years ago.
“It is important to be where the issues are visible.”
On his walk to work every day, Tim sees the air pollution that he and other locals breathe. In the market, people eke out a daily living. A short trip from his home, he finds communities with almost non-existent health systems, inadequate schools and men and women working in often dangerous conditions.
“This doesn’t happen in Geneva. Most people think Thailand is a beach.”
Inis Communication works with around 150 global health and development organizations, helping them communicate their work more effectively as they transition from printed materials to digital communications. Until recently, global agencies acted as traditional information intermediaries: they had the corner market on development-related information. With many more players active in the sector, and with the internet putting information sources in everyone’s hands, that is no longer the case.
Organizations, even the big ones, have to compete for audience attention. In an overloaded world, thought leaders have to connect the dots to offer unique perspectives that push boundaries and challenge current assumptions – the opposite of how most bureaucracies behave, even today.
“We are still trapped in our silos of thought, preventing us from making connections that would allow us to tackle epidemics and other development challenges.”
Tim France and other like-minded thinkers are moving away from the older models of development that were molded over 60 years ago, to embrace the vision of the new sustainable development goals (SDGs) and their promise of integrated approaches, where organizations work freely across entrenched silos.
To understand why current approaches are running into walls, Tim looks back at the development sector’s beginnings and asks a critical question: “How did the short history of international development get us to this point?”
“Essentially ‘international development’ was inspired by successive World Wars. We wanted to make sure that countries recovered from the consequences of war, and that victims were resettled and rehabilitated. So we ‘helped’ them.”
It was in the wake of World War II that the United Nations was created as we know it today, and charities such as Oxfam were gaining momentum.
Fast forward sixty years or so, and fundamentally the same approach to development persisted, but was punctuated in 2008 by the global financial crisis. Development ‘aid’ became harder for many countries to justify to electorates, given their own fiscal meltdowns.
“Suddenly, in a world defined by protectionist policies, up-ended geopolitics and unprecedented humanitarian crises and conflicts, a ‘development system’ conceived in the 50s looked decidedly unfit for purpose.”
Since then, a new and more sustainable development plan has been quietly designed from the ground up, largely inspired by smaller nations, including Columbia and Kenya, with the help of various parts of the U.N.
“The U.N. invited public input on ‘The World We Want’ – and over ten million people responded, providing massive input and legitimacy to the planning process.”
The result is a radical, people-powered paradigm shift: The Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) are geared to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. They are also intended for all countries to apply universally – the decades-long practice of the rich world setting development priorities for the global South is over. The integrated approach of the SDGs acknowledges the complex relationship between typically siloed priorities.
“More than ever, we need thought leaders who can connect the dots. For example, if meteorologists can understand health experts, then we can predict malaria outbreaks based on our knowledge of historic rainfall patterns. If we see the connections between coral reef degradation and the threat to people’s food security, then we might look at acidification of our oceans in a different, and more serious way…For decades we have valued specialization in development, in science, but authentic sustainable development is unattainable if specialists hide in their towers.”
After leading a recent series of webinars for over 300 people from 60 countries, Tim France is linking together ‘renaissance’ thinkers who can help others connect the dots and enter into genuine dialogue across disciplines.
“We can’t worry about who is setting the agenda; it is more about helping people learn to communicate and designing the 21st century information tools we need to work across disciplines. We need a sustainable development conversation with a center, not sides… We could simply wait for organizations to reform themselves, to adapt to the SDGs framework and the new global context. But while we wait, it makes sense to shift focus to more local and individual actions, to help fill the institutional void.”
– Addison Grace Evans