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International Impotence: Why the UNDP’s “Uncertainty Complex” Misses the Mark
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Central to the overarching theme of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2021-2022 Human Development Report is the “uncertainty complex.” The authors define it to be an emerging phenomenon characterized by an acute hopelessness about the world and a lingering sense of impending doom. Although rather broad and all-encompassing, three factors dominate the discourse around the uncertainty complex: the imminent threat of the climate crisis, misplaced or otherwise lackluster societal responses to it, and rampant political polarization. Admittedly, as the forward from UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner elucidates, the report is not necessarily claiming that uncertainty itself is anything new. “People have faced diseases, wars and environmental disruptions before,” he says, but the problem is instead that “layers of uncertainty are stacking up” (UNDP, iii). Essentially, the world is experiencing a hitherto unparalleled series of lifestyle uncertainties that have come to a head, materializing in the form of the Human Development Index (HDI) declining for two years in a row.

There are significant issues to unpack with the premise that this uncertainty complex is remotely unique. Semantics here are important; the authors behind this report make explicit effort to affirm that they are not claiming this is the first time humanity has felt a collective malaise. However, what contradicts this position is the hammering home of how “unprecedented” and “record-breaking” these crises are for the species. Moreover, in the same sentence, the report decries the notion of a “return to normal” and then vaguely rambles about the promise and peril of future government action and inaction (UNDP, 16). Why is it that this “uncertainty complex,” stemming from unrivaled global shocks heralding a “new reality” for humanity, is met from the current leading international institution with a verbal shrug? If this at all appears familiar, it’s because it is. Per usual, little is said on the substance of dealing with these problems and more is instead harped about contemporary problems and how someone, somewhere, somehow should fix them. The UNDP’s “uncertainty complex” misses the mark by insisting upon grievances that are not, in fact, unparalleled while offering solutions that are not, in fact, innovative.

Unpacking the Problems and “Solutions”

Of the three major influences on the uncertainty complex, only one is truly that distinctive: the climate crisis. In good faith, I concede that there is particular attention that should be paid toward the effects of the Anthropocene now more than ever. But what exactly is new about the subsequently listed problems; those being a weak state-level response to the issue and widespread political polarization? For years, arguably decades, countless governments around the world have failed to adequately respond to climate change. As the article “Is Green Growth Possible?” makes clear, the popular strategy of balancing continued economic expansion with sustainability practices is inadequate to address the problem head-on (Hickel & Kallis, 482). Carbon-neutral by 2050 policies sound good on paper, but are they really going to stop humanity from barreling past the 2°C threshold to avoid climate catastrophe?

In that same vein, what is truly unique about our era of political discontent? Dozens of articles and books have been dedicated to exploring the death of democracy and the world’s plunge into darkness. In 2017, authors from The Washington Post ruminated on whether democracy was yet an “endangered species…in gradual recession” (Muravchik & Gedmin). Ironically, the article goes on to point out similar worries of the time just five years ago: instability in Russia verging on nuclear war and American democracy on the brink of collapse. My point here is not to dismiss the warnings posited by the UNDP. Greenwashed corporatocracies should be lambasted and we should hesitate to make light of liberal democracy’s invulnerability with the rise of right-wing governments in Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere. But we should also take care to acknowledge the continuity of history and how these policies, attitudes, and cultural shifts have been gradual rather than sudden.

More problematic are the report’s so-called “solutions” which invariably suggest a boilerplate reaction from the United Nations that is unwilling to change with the changing world upon which this report is predicated. Plenty of optimistic charts distract from the crux of the UNDP’s advisement in this situation: the “Three I’s,” or investment, insurance, and innovation. Nothing is inherently wrong with these proposals, but they are all unfortunately alike in that they are limited by their actionable quality and substance. Taking “investment” for example: the report advises that investment should be made toward “mechanisms that prepare local communities to face rapid environmental changes such as food insecurity” (UNDP, 182). Now, this is a global report, but there are more questions than answers left with this suggestion. Which mechanisms? Which communities, and where? Furthermore, the Three I’s all advocate for external revenue streams, making clear that the report is hinging its success on the aforementioned Three S’s of international governance: someone, somewhere, somehow will find a way.


There is no doubt that it would be unwise not to heed the attention the UNDP is bringing to these worldwide hurdles to achieving more equitable governance. Tragedy is rife in the world at the moment, and the more awareness about our civilization-wide dilemma, the better. But there is also an inadvertent danger in presenting the uncertainty complex as the UNDP has done in this report. By proposing that the issues explored in this report are special to our moment in history, there is risk in suggesting a doomsday scenario from which the world cannot recover. More importantly, the solutions offered by the UNDP are naïve at best and utopian at worst, reflecting the impotence of our globalized age. It is ironic that the report focuses so heavily on the mental health aspects of the uncertainty complex, given that the report does nothing to assuage the fears of any pragmatic person. If the UN is to continue brushing off its responsibility as a forum for dialogue and radical change alike, we will only continue endlessly swimming in a sea of uncertainty.

Brian Johnson is a senior at American University studying International Studies with minors in History and Economics.

Reference Page

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). (2022, September 8). Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World https://www.undp.org/egypt/publications/human-development-report-2021-22-uncertain-times-unsettled-lives-shaping-our-future-transforming-world.

Hickel, J. and Kallis G. (2019, April 17). Is Green Growth Possible? New Political Economy, 25(4), 469-486. https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964.

Muravchik J. and Gedmin J. (2017, April 19). This is what the beginning of the end of democracy looks like. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/04/19/this-is-what-the-beginning-of-the-end-of-democracy-looks-like/.


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