The age of uncertainty

By Maleeha Lodhi
Published in DAWN on September 19, 2022

IN the midst of the worst catastrophe Pakistan has faced in living memory, uncertainty looms about the future. But with that comes an opportunity to rebuild lives and make the country resistant to the ravages of climate change.

The challenge is to plan for a future in which this threat to human security is mitigated and managed effectively. Along with navigating a crisis that has aggravated the country’s economic predicament, the task ahead is to reverse the setback to human development experienced by the country in recent years.

The latest Human Development Report (2021-2022) points out that the past two years have had a devastating impact on countries across the world. For the first time, human development has declined in nine out of 10 countries.

The UNDP report describes features of the current fraught and unsettled environment that also prevail in Pakistan. “We live in a world of worry,” says the report. Reversals in human development have taken place almost everywhere due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with more human suffering occurring in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. For two consecutive years, the global Human Development Index (HDI) value declined. A “cost-of-living crisis” is afflicting nations, regional conflicts continue and record-breaking temperatures and storms reflect the extreme stress the planet is under.

The report, Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives, says this kind of “uncertainty complex” has never been witnessed in the past. It has three volatile and interacting elements: destabilising planetary pressures of the Anthropocene, pursuit of sweeping societal transformations to ease those pressures, and intensifying polarisation. This is described as the new normal.

The report also underscores that even before the pandemic, the world saw the erosion of democracy, increase in people’s insecurity, as well as alienation with their political systems. In a finding that will be familiar to people in Pakistan, the report warns of the peril of “new uncertainties” in insecurities, demagoguery and polarisation evident in many countries. Trust is declining, hyperinformation is sowing division, political extremism is increasing, while paralysis has emerged as the paradox of our age.

With devastating floods adding to the cascading economic and political crisis in Pakistan, the country’s ranking on the global human development index may fall even further. The report shows Pakistan has already dropped seven places to 161 out of 191 countries and now joins the world’s 32 low human development countries.

In 2020, Pakistan’s ranking was 154 of 189 countries. Sri Lanka is ranked 73, Bangladesh 129 and India is at 132. HDI is a measure that evaluates long-term progress in three aspects of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a reasonable standard of living. Pakistan’s low ranking is a reminder of the long way the country has to go in this regard.

Divisive politics during the ongoing climate calamity has denuded the country of a unified response.

UNDP’s Human Development Reports have always produced quality analysis and shone a light on how to address challenges in this critical area. But the latest report surpasses previous ones for its insightful review of the state of play, rich discussion of a range of contemporary phenomena fuelling our age of uncertainty, and what to do about it. The report also contains thoughtful essays by an array of experts on wide-ranging issues germane to human security and development.

The report considers the rise in polarisation within and across countries. Its discussion of the drivers and consequences of polarisation is especially instructive. Uncertainties of different kinds, human insecurity and an unsettled environment increase polarisation. Inequalities and disruptive changes in information systems also sharpen polarisation. One consequence of the “confluence of heightened uncertainty with high inequality” is the rise in support for authoritarian leaders.

Seen as an impediment to purposeful action to address challenges, intensifying political and social polarisation has a paralysing effect and undermines the ability to act collectively. Above all, it delays action to curb human pressures on the planet.

So even when problems and solutions are clear, there is “a failure to act”. The report argues that “polarisation can take dangerous forms when different groups operate with entirely different sets of facts and, thus, realities, especially when those realities are bound up with group identities”. This is enabled by new digital technologies.

Polarisation at the elite level leads to polarised views among people, who then become “more tolerant of undemocratic behaviour”. What the report calls ‘hyperinformation’ is seen as “powering social division and polarisation”.

There is much here that resonates in Pakistan, where the interplay between political unpredictability, multiple deprivations and insecurities, economic hardship and rising inequalities have provided an enabling environment for heightened polarisation and for the growing influence of populism. The populist narrative that taps into declining public trust in institutions by portraying them as ‘elitist’ and unresponsive to people’s needs finds widespread traction in our society.

Digital and social media is further reinforcing divisiveness and polarisation. Its disruptive impact here, as elsewhere, comes from non-fact-based information and the fake news it so easily spreads. The crisis of national unity that political polarisation has created casts a long shadow over Pakistan’s future — and its ability to meet the complex challenges it has to negotiate.

Divisive politics during the ongoing climate calamity, which has also involved some parties stoking controversy over flood donations, has denuded the country of a coordinated and unified response.

To return to the report, the most important takeaway is its central argument that harnessing human development is the surest means to navigate uncertain times, as they open possibilities for transformative change. This is because at such moments, people see the need for change and also because of new opportunities offered by technological innovation and advances in science and medicine. Shocks, it suggests, creates openings for policy change.

The report calls for policies that focus on investment, insurance and innovation to help people negotiate uncertainties, keeping in mind the ineluctable reality that people are the real wealth of a country. Wise counsel that needs to be acted on.

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