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John W. McArthur

John W. McArthur

Posted: July 13, 2009 10:20 AM

A New Approach to Global Problem-Solving


Last week's G8 Summit underscored the extent to which leaders around the world are straining to manage a flood of concurrent crises. Amidst the news flashes from Kabul, Pyongyang and Tehran, the global undertow of economic, social and environment challenges is equally if not more profound. The economic crisis is pushing unemployment to forgotten heights in the rich countries while at least 50 million more people in developing countries are sliding below the dollar-a-day threshold of extreme poverty.

Our global coping mechanisms are on a brink. The World Food Program is slashing emergency humanitarian programs amidst a reported $5 billion budget gap. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria faces its own multi-billion dollar gap that will prevent live-saving services from reaching millions of people. The H1N1 virus has officially reached global pandemic proportions, with uncertain implications. Meanwhile climate change proceeds at a quietly relentless pace, straining ecosystems and social systems across the planet.

How to manage the complexity? In the United States, the Obama Administration has been criticized for setting too many priorities at once. Yet the critique of an overcrowded plate overlooks the fundamental challenge of modern public leadership. Today there is no choice but to tackle a multidimensional global agenda. Which among macroeconomic coordination, food production, energy, climate change, or disease control could be considered optional at this stage?

The reality is that problem-solving must now be both multilateral and multisectoral. Even in the United States, the world's richest country by many measures, long term prosperity hinges on concerted progress across health care, education, energy and infrastructure. Foreign policy success will hinge on programs to address global health, agriculture, and climate change. It is far from trivial that budget director Peter Orszag has stressed health care performance as the single biggest priority for America's long term fiscal wellbeing. Nor are the climate-linked agricultural and economic warnings of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to be taken lightly.

The United States' need for multi-sector leadership only parallels the challenge already felt throughout the rest of the world, especially in the poorest countries. Consider, for example, the chronic crisis of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. An understanding of basic agriculture is required to help double stagnant crop yields. Core concepts of environmental science are needed to manage land and migration pressures amidst climate change. Health systems are essential for promoting farmers' productivity. Simple engineering is crucial to irrigation, energy, and transport.

The world of multisectoral multilateralism requires trained professionals at all levels, across all countries, who are able to connect practical problem-solving across specialized disciplines on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the world does not yet train people for these tasks. Our higher education systems overwhelmingly reward targeted, single discipline studies while so many of the world's most pressing issues require solutions that draw systematically from insights across disciplines. Specialists remain essential but vastly more people should have at least a basic understanding of the spectrum of topics underpinning core global challenges.

This was the conclusion that colleagues and I recently reached through the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University. We identified a stark need for scientifically savvy policy generalists, practitioners who can bridge the work of specialists through knowledge of four pillars of sustainable development: natural sciences, health sciences, social sciences and management. In academic jargon, one could say that the commission outlined the need for "science-based policy MBAs."

The Commission recommended a new global form of graduate degree program, a Master's in Development Practice, to train professionals across the four basic pillars, with an emphasis on practical skills and field training. It also recommended that students practice working in networks across borders and time zones as a normal habit, empowered by simple webcams and cheap software.

Last October the Foundation committed a pool of more than $15 million to seeding these new degree programs. In the following two months more than 140 universities submitted formal letters of interest from around the world. On July 1, the Foundation announced its first tranche of support to institutions throughout Australia, Botswana, China, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Senegal, and the United States. Amidst a time of such remarkable global turbulence, it is notable that universities are leading the charge of policy renewal. This might be the first time that a new form of degree program has been launched concurrently in so many corners of the globe.

Today's unanticipated global maelstrom is forcing governments, businesses and citizens to remember our interconnected fragility and purpose. Thinking narrowly about priorities will lead to narrow thinking on solutions. We must recognize the interwoven nature of the global agenda, and move quickly to train the practitioners who will manage the complex course ahead.

John McArthur is the CEO and Executive Director of Millennium Promise. He is based in New York. Follow John on Twitter @johnmca or email him at john.mcarthur@millenniumpromise.org.

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