The Meaning of 'Practice' in the Age of Sustainable Development: Part II (from the MDGs to 2030)

06/01/2015 11:00 am ET | Updated May 31, 2016

Last week, I attended the graduation ceremony of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), where I teach and lead several educational initiatives. In her graduation address to SIPA's class of 2015, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy shared a story about her father, President John F. Kennedy, and Kohei Hanami, the commander of the Japanese Navy destroyer that sank the torpedo boat commanded by JFK during World War II. Through compassion, mutual understanding, and a shared long-term perspective, the men were able to turn their enmity into friendship after the war.

Robert Putnam recently observed that Americans used to care about other people's children, but now care only about their own. For Putnam, "America's poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids". That same week, I read Tim Leberecht, from the Harvard Business Review, argue that, "leaders win trust when they show a bit of humanity". According to him, it is "time for a different approach - one that allows leaders to fully acknowledge their humanity, thereby winning both the trust and respect of followers". He suggests three strategies to reach this goal: get emotional, be whimsical, and express doubt.

These examples at the international, national, and local level illustrate what a new meaning of practice needs to embody in the next fifteen years in order for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved and for development practitioners with leadership aspirations.

For the last fifteen years - the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) - the concept of practice has been focused on applying knowledge from fields such as economics, sociology, geography, finance, engineering, education, health, and management, in locally contextualized practical solutions to poverty alleviation. This approach typically consists of a series of tools, skills and techniques for problem appraisal, program design, program implementation and monitoring and evaluation.

The meaning of practice, however, needs to be reinterpreted. The focus on cognitive thinking and technical skills underlying this problem-program-implementation-assessment action-framework needs to give space to a skill-set capable of actually building lasting trust and reciprocal altruism between key development actors. This needs to happen for at least three reasons. First, as argued in Part I of this essay, the most pressing challenges the SDGs need to address in the 21st century are related to partnering and negotiating skills. In fact, the overarching 17th SDG proposes, "to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development".

Second, we need new approaches to understanding the minds of the people with whom we negotiate, work, or need to persuade and inform. Before the Internet and the expansion of global trade and international institutions, our lives were a lot more localized. As such, our social skills were mainly learned through parental education, locally-based friends, and the school in our community. Nowadays, there is much more international interdependence. If we are to achieve the SDGs over the next fifteen years, we need to broaden our capacity to consider the goals, aspirations, intentions, fears, emotions and beliefs of others.


Third, spectacular technological advancements allow us to expand the study of the mind, brain and behavior in novel ways. The use of game thinking, game mechanics and gamification in non-game contexts are increasingly being used to engage policy makers and citizens in real-world problem solving. Research requiring the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners that used to cost $3 million (plus $1 million to install) is being replaced by newer technologies, like the functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), at a fraction of the cost (under $100,000). Big data platforms, combined with large quantities of data that are collected in real-world environments, can be used to deepen our understanding of the human brain's evolutionary capacity and plasticity for social cooperation.

Roger Fisher and William Ury's best-seller "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving in" has sold more than 2.5 million copies since 1981. Fisher and Ury advised that to "get to yes" one has to:
- separate people from the problem (i.e., the importance of perceptions, emotions, communication, anticipation and prevention of problems);
- focus on interests, not positions (i.e., the capacity to ask questions, to listen and develop empathy);
- invent options for mutual gain (i.e., search for mutual gains, a collaborative attitude, mindfulness, creativity);
- focus on objective criteria to assess alternatives and trade-offs (i.e., fairness, reason, self-control).

Ten years later, William Ury's "Getting Past No: Negotiating with Difficult People" concludes with "turn adversaries into partners", much like JFK had done nearly fifty years earlier.

Traditional learning methodologies have focused on cognitive thinking such as intelligence, problem solving, technical solutions, expert knowledge, and best practices. But what about social thinking? How much have our educational programs and practice actually heeded Fisher and Ury's insights over the last three decades? In an age of global dialogues, interactions and negotiations, why have we relegated social and communicative learning to the informal realm (i.e. family, friends, colleagues)? Are we hoping these skills will flourish without formal, structured education merely because humans are social beings?

Social psychology and social-cognitive neuroscience have shown that the brain remains plastic throughout our lifetime. How much are we incorporating these principles into our organizational culture, higher- and continuing education programs, curricula and learning environments? And more specifically in this context, how do we plan to reconcile the SDGs, namely the global partnerships proposed by the 17th SDG, with the actual skills required for getting to yes and getting past no?

Bloomberg recently published a survey, in which 1,320 job recruiters at more than 600 companies, including 23 S&P 500 companies, reported on the skills that employers want but struggle to find. Not surprisingly, the missing skills were leadership, communications, strategic thinking and creative problem solving.

Practice in the age of sustainable development will require a much stronger preparation of practitioners and development actors in disciplines such as social psychology and behavioral sciences, strategic reasoning, social cognition, team coaching and embedded empathy. Even some subfields of life sciences, such as neuroscience and functional biology, should factor more prevalently in our curricula. These topics are typically not even available as elective courses in our programs on international development, international affairs, public affairs or public administration. Behavioral sciences can help us formulate better theories about the minds of those with whom we interact, as well as enhance our capacity for developing emphatic motivation and reciprocal altruism. Ultimately, this will increase trust between development actors. Superior trust-building skills are needed in a new generation of professionals who can forge the local, national and international alliances that truly sustainable development necessitates in this day and age.

The global partnerships needed in the age of sustainable development require a new meaning for practice. From a focus on action through technical skills within large groups or communities, practice needs to focus much more on inter-personal empathy through social skills within dyads and between small decision-making groups.