Members of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures.
“First we start with building a scenario that tries to represent a continuation of all of the things you would expect to see if the world continued as normal,” says Jonathan Moyer, explaining his work with global development modeling. “The next question is ‘Well, what would disrupt that trend?’”
Moyer says a pandemic is always one possible answer to that question. Today, of course, it is a reality.
That reality has completely reshaped Moyer’s work as an assistant professor in the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. Founded in 2007, the Pardee Center works to improve the human condition through long-term forecasting and global trend analysis. Much of the center’s research revolves around the International Futures (IFs) modeling system, a free, open-source software developed by Barry Hughes, the Pardee Center’s founding director. Today, the center is home to 15 full-time staff members and an additional 60 research aids.
While some think of the Pardee Center’s work as peeking into the future, Moyer says it’s more about creating an understanding of what the future might look like under different conditions. This is especially true with COVID-19.
“Some people want to predict the pandemic. How long is it going to last and how many people will die? That’s not what we do,” he says. “Instead, we are sitting back and saying, ‘OK, what would the pandemic have to change and at what magnitude in order to see an effect on human development over the long term?”
The Pardee Center’s work over the last year shows that the ramifications of COVID-19 will be felt well into the future, particularly for fragile regions on the brink of major development, like Sub-Saharan Africa.
Pardee Center scenarios depicting the most likely outcome of the pandemic show an additional 50-100 million people falling into extreme poverty in the wake of reduced economic activity and global lockdowns. But with a global pandemic comes uncertainty, and that uncertainty, Moyer says, could push us toward the worst-case scenario, in which the virus continues to mutate, vaccines rollout too slowly and extreme poverty rates increase beyond our imagination.
But there’s also a best-case scenario — a chance for a global shift for the better.
“Now the positive story is that this COVID crisis is an opportunity to recognize that the world is full of shocks and things we can’t anticipate,” Moyer says. “The best way to prepare for them is to help poor and vulnerable governments and populations improve their capability to respond to shocks. … If you do that, and you do it carefully, you can actually improve development and make things better than they would’ve been in the absence of the crisis.”
As the world continues to watch the economic impacts of the pandemic, the team at the Pardee Center is also keeping a close eye on global conflict. One of its early pandemic reports forecasted the possibility of 13 new conflicts by 2022, which would bring the world back to the instability of the early ‘90s. While that hasn’t quite come to fruition, Moyer says, increasing conflict is still a likelihood, particularly in areas where lagging infrastructure has prevented a robust government response to the pandemic.
“If you have countries with poor abilities to respond to the needs of the citizenry, that can lead to additional conflict because then you have groups of people in the country who compete for power and you get internal coups or civil conflicts,” he explains. “Because the pandemic has a big negative effect on the economy, that could spill forward and negatively affect government’s abilities to earn revenue, to provide security or services, health and education. That kind of a shock can cause populations who are not happy to revolt.”
While it’s still unclear how exactly the chips will fall, one thing is certain: The pandemic’s impact on sustainable development will be significant in one direction or the other. And it’s not just the economy and conflict. Things like food insecurity, gender dynamics, childhood development, China’s rapid rise as a global power and more are being closely watched by the Pardee Center researchers.
Yet even with sophisticated tools and deep knowledge of development, so much remains uncertain. That’s par for the course, even outside of pandemic times, says Moyer.
“Uncertainty is a certainty, and you have to live within that. But that’s also why what we do is helpful,” he says. “You can’t get rid of it, you can’t wish it away, but you can provide yourself with the proper knowledge that you can use to make better decisions.”