What do melting Himalayan glaciers have to do with food security in Cambodia? Not much, thought an aid practitioner trying to boost food security along the lower reaches of the Mekong River — until she heard a colleague working on the Tibetan Plateau describe the downstream implications of climate change in the Himalayas. Everything she was working on, she suddenly realized, could be literally washed away.

An unusual gathering of individuals across sectors allowed these two workers to share information on the periphery of their own work that turned out to be not at all peripheral to their goals. But if we want to make the progress in long-term development planning that we need to benefit people and the planet, we must make this kind of information-sharing the rule rather than the exception.

Four Tyrannies

Environmental and human security issues are fundamentally interconnected — consider, for example, climate change, food shortages, fresh water access and global health threats. Recognizing their multiple interdependencies offers a number of benefits, including fully realizing the potential of long-term trend analysis, avoiding unintended consequences, saving money and time, and producing better results due to greater community buy-in. Unfortunately, efforts to address development and environmental issues as interconnected are too often crippled by four “tyrannies”:

1. Tyranny of the Inbox

The “tyranny of the inbox” — the necessity of responding to the immediate crisis or the hot political priority — blocks long-term diagnosis, design and response. Such priority items commonly add up to more than a full-time job. Consequently, over-the-horizon or more mundane challenges with sizable development implications receive much less attention.

2. Tyranny of Immediate Results

The “tyranny of immediate results” is driven by absurdly short time lines. The expectation that projects produce positive and meaningful results within a year or two does not pass the laugh test for a sustainable and successful approach. Demand for immediate results often means development practitioners do not have time to think about long-term trends, and their projects do not have time to produce meaningful results. Efforts are deemed failures before they have had a chance to take effect — despite the reality that if the challenges such projects address were easy to overcome, they would have been solved long ago.

3. Tyranny of the Single Sector

The “tyranny of the single sector” still dominates funding, despite growing rhetoric and occasional forays into integrated approaches that reflect the complex, interconnected challenges of development. That very complexity encourages practitioners to stay within their wheelhouse, thus reinforcing homogeneity. Many feel that “my issues are tough enough” without introducing other variables to the equation. And often, appropriators threaten severe penalties for those who stray from the narrow list of prescribed single-sector interventions — such as forestry projects that aren’t allowed to include watershed goals, or girls’ education programs that can’t report on more than one success indicator.

4. Tyranny of the Unidimensional Measurement of Success

The “tyranny of the unidimensional measurement of success” is the logical extension of the single-sector focus and prohibitively short time frames. For example, clear and immediate health indicators — such as vaccination rates — do not combine easily with long-term conservation indicators where success may be measured in actions not taken, such as deforestation avoided. Add in measuring impact at ecosystem or atmospheric scales, and impact and evaluation assessments for integrated projects become even more challenging.

The Integration Imperative

How do we overthrow these tyrannies and overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of regular and effective integration? Steps forward require changing the ways we work together.

Get out of our comfort zones. Development practitioners need to work across disciplinary, topical and geographic groupings to become conversant in the languages, tools and goals of communities working on environmental challenges. We can’t tackle these challenges together if we only know one discipline or issue area. Where this integrated analysis and collaboration flourishes, senior leadership has built it into systems, programs, training and professional reward structures.

Find better ways to collaborate. Policy practitioners must have greater facility with science, and scientists must better understand policy processes. We must be willing to develop nontraditional partnerships that bring other skill sets to the table. We must transition from incipient integrated analysis of problems to integrated actions.

Lower the barriers. We must reward, rather than punish, cross-disciplinary or cross-sectoral approaches; define success in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, positive outcomes in multiple arenas; and foster monitoring and evaluation plans that embrace, rather than ignore, different timescales and multiple indicators.

Build flexible institutions. We must build institutions and organizations for which variability, and not stasis, is the norm.

Think long term. The velocity of change demands that we look more closely at emerging trends five, 10 and 15 years out, because these development trends require action today. We must build capacity to do future trends analysis to support anticipatory efforts.

Integrated Analysis and Development at Work

Examples of development efforts that deliberately seek to benefit people and the environment at the same time are often at ground level and little known. Diverse efforts in Asia, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, illustrate how integrated analysis and programs can help us address challenges in ways that embrace rather than ignore complexity and multiple needs.

Asia: Interdisciplinary Trend Analysis

The Mekong food security practitioner mentioned earlier came together with the Tibetan Plateau expert because their colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development Bureau for Asia recognized that a wide set of climate, energy, economic, governance and conflict issues affected their core biodiversity and water portfolios. They also recognized they needed to go outside their daily routine to understand the implications of those connections. On closer inspection, trends that appeared at first glance (and certainly by budget line) to be in the periphery clearly were not peripheral to planning and designing programs for long-term success. Working with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, USAID engaged outside experts on a diverse set of topics normally considered outside their portfolios. The resulting consultations and report, Asia’s Future: Critical Thinking for a Changing Environment, led to a deeper understanding of the possible impacts of numerous concurrent trends — including the potential consequences of increased Himalayan glacier melt and Chinese hydropower plans on food security and biodiversity programs in the lower reaches of the Mekong River.

We need to practice peripheral vision to make sure key issues outside our specific portfolios come out of the shadows and into full view.

DRC: Humanitarian Aid Meets Environmental Stewardship

In war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the relief group Mercy Corps brought natural resource management expertise into what has historically been an emergency relief mission, fusing humanitarian assistance with longer term sustainable development efforts. For example, the use of fuel-efficient cookstoves eases pressure on local forest resources by reducing the demand for firewood and improves respiratory health by lowering air pollution. The project scaled up the effort through resources from further integration, with carbon credits from avoided emissions being sold through a local broker to the European cap-and-trade market. These resources in turn helped finance more cookstoves.

Philippines: Health, Population and Environment

The PATH Foundation Philippines’ Integrated Population and Coastal Resource Management, or IPOPCORM, initiative uses an integrated approach to address health, population and environmental concerns in coastal communities. The foundation’s services include establishing a locally managed protected marine sanctuary to allow local fish stocks to recover, promoting alternative economic livelihoods outside the fishing industry, and improving access to local health services and commodities. To date IPOPCORM has yielded several notable improvements — among them, lower program costs and better health and environmental outcomes than side-by-side single-sector interventions as documented by a peer-reviewed study.

Practicing Peripheral Vision

We need to practice peripheral vision to make sure key issues outside our specific portfolios come out of the shadows and into full view. In today’s world, we must make time and be willing to go outside our comfort zones and bring analysis from topically and geographically remote areas into truly sustainable development planning and response. To be intentionally blind to interconnectivity — between climate change and food security, for example — means we are certain to have many unwelcome “surprises.”

To develop this needed peripheral vision, we all need to get out more. If you know everyone at a certain meeting or on a project team, you are not doing your job. If you view environment and development challenges that range across geography and scale as interconnected — if you embrace the periphery as integral, not peripheral — you are. View Ensia homepage

Adapted from Chapter 8 in The Future Can’t Wait, published in 2013 by the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Department of State, National Defense University, and Woodrow Wilson Center.