UN Cambodia’s foresight journey — continuous learning and experimentation

United Nations Cambodia
7 min readJun 16, 2022

by Pauline Tamesis, the UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia

Pauline Tamesis, the UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia

The COVID-19 crisis, the climate crisis and the Ukraine crisis all show the need to be prepared for the unthinkable. Today, we face even more and complex interconnected challenges. How can the United Nations use foresight to be “future fit” as well as “future proof” our policies and programmes? To support the Royal Government of Cambodia to anticipate risks and prepare for various futures? UN in Cambodia’s foresight initiatives were designed to deliver on the aims of the UN reform — the need for more integrated and focused delivery on the ground — and the aspirations of the Secretary General for a UN 2.0 that applies future-oriented policy making to face the challenges of the 21st century.

How it started

Innovation starts with experimentation. In Cambodia, we embarked on a foresight journey that started a few years ago to support the Supreme National Economic Council in the Cambodia Vision 2050 process. Initial plans were set up — then COVID-19 hit. The Government’s focus shifted to combat the virus and the UN geared up with its health and socio-economic response. Transforming the pandemic into an opportunity, I brought in foresight into the drafting of the Socio-Economic Response Plan.

Taking baby steps in foresight experimentation, the next step was to look internally at the larger UN Cooperation Framework process. In 2020, the Resident Coordinator Office organized a foresight workshop to shift from a Common Country Analysis (CCA) that is a static document to a CCA that is able to yield more regular, up-to-date, and future-facing information. For many colleagues, this was a new way of re-imagining risks and opportunities. The strategic foresight approach carried into the mid-term reflection of UN’s current cooperation framework in Cambodia where we asked ourselves: “What are the big shifts that need to happen for system transformation? What specific actions should the UN take to remain relevant in a changing world?” It resulted in five big “forward actions” for the UNCT during the next two years.

While a lot of focus was put on sensitizing the UN internally, the external facing part of our experiment was opportunistic. During the UN 75th birthday celebration in the middle of the pandemic, “the future we want” campaign, I invited the Presencing Institute’s Professor Otto Scharmer to be one of the keynote speakers at our high-level event on multilateralism. It took only one person in the audience to make a difference. One person in a leading government position to be inspired by how to reduce the blind spots in the ability to lead and chart an inclusive future for the country. With this, we were able to mobilize and launch the Cambodia Futures Lab.

Gathering different perspectives and voices on how the future may unfold can be a powerful tool to better prepare for an uncertain future. This led to two more recent foresight exercises together with civil society organizations. The first one, with support from UN Global Pulse, focused on generating insights into the evolution of the political environment, including the elections, to strengthen anticipatory capacity and preparedness for a range of alternate futures. The second one, in collaboration with the Humanitarian Response Forum in Cambodia, looked at the future risk landscape, emerging hazards and anticipatory actions in relation to humanitarian risks to be better fit for purpose.

A three-step foresight process with the Humanitarian Response Forum (HRF). During the second workshop 10 June 2022, participants considered scenarios and risks to make HRF’s contingency plan more forward-looking by encompassing both a broader set of possibilities as well as considering the effects of multiple concurrent crises. ©UNCambodia/2022/RathaSoy

What we learned and emerging results

What did we learn from our foresight work so far? It is still unfolding, but there are some emerging lessons and results to share.

Openness — to question our assumption and beliefs. Openness to joint learning and innovation. We have seen that when provided the opportunity to think and discuss together, colleagues are keen to collaborate. This speaks of a need to continue to carve out time in our busy schedule to connect and learn from each other. Through our experimentation and focus on transformational leadership, head of agencies have increasingly gotten used to foresight approaches in the leadership discussions that we have, for instance in preparing the UN Human Rights Response strategy.

Inclusiveness — involving a range of stakeholders, beyond the usual suspects. We cannot do this alone. The entire UN Development System needs to change, where UN is a catalyst for transformation. We invited youth to participate in the UN Country Team retreat earlier this year, to listen to the future they want. It inspired us to step up youth participation in UN processes. Moreover, the success of the Cambodia Futures Lab is thanks to its tri-sector partnership, where future generation leaders in Government, civil society and private sector are able to discuss a collective vision for Cambodia together.

Data — the need for different sources of data to enrich our horizon scanning. With the help of UNDP Crisis Bureau, we also experiment through the creation of the Cambodia Crisis Risk Dashboard, combining SDG and Human Rights indicators to map out vulnerabilities in a way that we have not seen before. Whether it be disaster prone geographic areas, human rights violations, or poverty indicators, a combination by layering the vulnerabilities can give us new insights.

Integration — foresight in our DNA. While some foresight initiatives have been completed, there is a need to institutionalize it into the UN Cooperation Framework governance structure. How can we organize ourselves better to respond to on-going and emerging risks and opportunities in a flexible and systematic way? How can our foresight analysis trickle down into our programming? One of the prototypes is the aforementioned Humanitarian Response Forum foresight process, analysing future humanitarian risks and hazards, beyond tropical storms, floods and droughts. COVID-19 taught us to be ready for a more complex risk picture, and the result of this process will be an updated HRF contingency plan.

Trust — for transformation to happen it is important to build trust. Be it internally within the UN family or among different partners. Creating trust among participants was a core part of the Cambodia Futures Lab success — a safe space to discuss. Listening to people who you would not normally hear, the most vulnerable people, is another part. Hence, the UN in Cambodia is currently organizing “Leaving No One Behind” consultations with different communities and population groups on the future they want, to feed into the new Cooperation Framework design. These consultations are illustrating how, when people are sitting together in a room, there is social capital created through shared experiences.

Influence — using the prototypes to create other avenues for influence. Change will only happen if the entire system shifts. First, influencing the ones that have power to change the development trajectory of the country to a more inclusive and sustainable one. From the Cambodia Futures Lab, aspirations for digital transformation emerged and the UN Country Team is currently joining forces on supporting Cambodia’s digital transformation with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.

Secondly, going beyond our own influence as UN. How can we enhance our partners’ capabilities? A positive result from the election scenarios workshops was sparking the interest of our CSO partners to use foresight for their own strategy processes. Engaging with youth also allowed us to hear their views of the future and the role they can play, influencing their own agency.

Interactive foresight exercises with Cambodian youth 18–30 years, to assist the UNCT in Cambodia better anticipate dynamics in the broader political and human rights context. A longer time horizon allowed participants to move beyond the challenges of the now, to find solutions to sensitive issues, finding inspiration for a brighter future. ©UNDPCambodia/2022/MonileakEan

What is next?

Foresight is just one of the tools, we need to accelerate appetite for learning and reduce our blind spots. Moving forward, we need to make the best of what we have — seize opportunities and inspiration. The UN Country Team’s vision for the new Cooperation Framework is one avenue. The Royal Government of Cambodia vision 2050 is another. Capacity building is a third, learning by doing through the current foresight initiatives as well as getting expert support through among others the School of International Futures “Foresight for Systems Change” training offered to the UN.

The UN in Cambodia is working on translating the insights from our foresight experiments into action. It has strengthened our early warning capacities and analysis, sparked further appetite to dive deeper into certain scenarios, continuously testing our assumptions, and broadening engagement to include alternative voices.

Coming back to why it’s necessary for the UN to have capabilities for foresight — because the world is changing faster than the UN can adapt. We can achieve the future we want by changing incentives and delivering results that make a difference in peoples’ lives.

This article is possible with the contribution of Luisa Karst, Special Assistant to the Resident Coordinator in Cambodia.

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United Nations Cambodia

Working for peace, poverty eradication and human rights in Cambodia, focusing on achieving SDGs and helping the country's progress.