How to write the recommendations to a report on almost anything: introducing Friday Formulae

October 22, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

I really enjoyed (if that’s the right word…) the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, but when it got to its recommendations, it struck me cover_generalsynthesisas incredibly formulaic. In that respect, it resembled an awful lot of the stuff I read (and, I fear, write) from thinktanks, international organizations and NGOs – fascinating diagnosis; shame about the cure.

So based on the MAE, and in the spirit of a jaded Friday morning blog, here’s my ‘Friday formula’ for how to write the recommendations section of a report on almost anything:

Start with Governance: Any issue requires improved governance, including integration of issue X with everything else, coordination between all actors working on issue X and of course, transparency and accountability. Motherhood and apple pie an optional extra.

Voice: Who’s not at the table, but should be?

Move onto economic incentives: getting rid of bad ones (eg fossil fuel subsidies), introducing good ones (eg feed in tariffs) that align economic activity with the activities you are trying to encourage.

Social and behavioural aspects: Include something on curbing northern consumption, but if you want to be a bit edgy, talk about the need to change attitudes and beliefs in developing countries too

Technologies: OK, now it’s getting tricky, but there’s a technological aspect to most discussions on development, so you can’t ignore it. You may want to distinguish between nice and nasty technologies. Always say there is no magic/silver bullet.

More and better data: Phew, back on safe ground again – there is never enough, it’s never gender disaggregated, and it omits vital aspects of the issue in question.

How to achieve all this? Political will, of course (aka, we’ve got no idea).

And end with what I now call by its initials, NMR – Needs More Research. After all, we don’t want to be out of a job, do we?

There’s nothing wrong with these recommendations – most of them are entirely sensible, but they aren’t sufficient. What’s missing? Power, politics, argument. These reports seem to inhabit a cosy world, in which enlightened technocrats endlessly seek (and find) win-win answers to any given problem – such solutions do exist, but not always. That may explain why the diagnosis is almost invariably more enlightenening than the recommendations. Real solutions often emerge unpredictably, often involving ‘contestation’ (i.e. win-lose) and shocks (economic meltdowns, conflict, natural disasters). Much trickier to predict, write about, or even understand.

What have I missed? Please add your bits to the recommendations template. Next week: The five standard excuses of (all) politicians.

October 22, 2010
Duncan Green