Recasting the problem of reports ending where they should have begun

The problem as currently framed: an illustration.


In October 2022, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) published its flagship report, Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract. Worth reading just for its case material and data, the some 330-paged report concludes with this last paragraph (quoted in full without edits):

Despite a challenging context, solutions exist, many of which have proven their effectiveness in real-world contexts, as demonstrated in this report. Power asymmetries and inequalities are daunting, but there are also countless examples of ways those at the bottom have successfully pushed back and shifted power away from the top. However, policies and strategies that have worked in one country might not be applicable or transferable to different contexts, or they may need to be adapted to national conditions. Importantly, instead of applying blueprints, we have to find and test alternative solutions by tapping into the creativity, imagination and skills of experts, entrepreneurs, political leaders, citizens and holders of traditional knowledge and wisdom. These new policies and institutional reforms need to reflect the values and goals agreed upon in new eco- social contracts, supported by an expanding community of ideas and actors that transcends silos and is collectively committed to a vision for the future grounded in the universal principles of justice, equality and sustainability. (p. 317)

The word, “creativity,” appears in two other places in the report and that with reference to the same group. The word, “imagination,” appears also in two different places, one in a citation and the other pejoratively in: “to manipulate our minds and imaginations”. For its part, “skills” is mentioned more frequently, though here largely within contexts about the need to develop, build and improve skills that aren’t there or poorly distributed.

Not surprisingly then, no one reading this report up to the last paragraph could ever conclude, I submit, that “countless examples” have been demonstrated to exist for pushing back power through creativity, imagination and skills.


Instead, this report is unremittingly negative and dispiriting in my view, with one challenging statistic after another piled high, and then higher, until leaving a shadowing insurmountability in their wake.

In my opinion, the last paragraph bears little relation to what proceeds it. More, we have here a failure of nerve–that is, until the 2023 report is published with its beginning paragraph the one just quoted and then followed by some 300 pages showing how the points now asserted at the outset are in fact the case.

Recasting the problem: illustration (continued)


The report’s authors will counter that my characterization is unfair. In particular, I’ve not addressed the material referenced in the first sentence: “Despite a challenging context, solutions exist, many of which have proven their effectiveness in real-world contexts, as demonstrated in this report.” I counter by saying these cases demonstrate just how far we are from actually achieving the report’s recommendations.

But my counter won’t do. I have been unfair, in the sense of not recasting what the authors are doing in a way that makes better sense of what the report is doing.


A different way to see the report is to shift the genre which serves as its context. The authors’ clearly think of the statistics, cases and policy recommendations as part of the policy report genre. Since the report is in the public domain, however, it’s open to being reinterpreted in many other useful ways.

In particular, my preceding criticisms are moot, if the report is treated first and foremost as a manifesto, also an entirely honorable policy genre:

A manifesto is a public declaration of intent, a laying out of the writer’s views (shared, it’s implied, by at least some vanguard “we”) on how things are and how they should be altered. Once the province of institutional authority, decrees from church or state, the manifesto later flowered as a mode of presumption and dissent. You assume the writer stands outside the halls of power (or else, occasionally, chooses to pose and speak from there)

We may quibble about the report being an overlong manifesto or why a UN entity considers itself outside the corridors of power.

But I want to be very clear that by using the report a manifesto I am not damning with faint praise or slighting it. For the record, manifestoes not only have a major role in public life, their importance increases in direct proportion to the spam churned out for regulators and policymakers by lobbyists and advocates who knew the answer all along.


If UNRISD’s Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract is read as a manifesto, then no one looks to a manifesto for the details of implementation. So too here. The report is a loud and clear call for change and is opposed to anything like bearing witness or responding with a ready quietism of despair.

More, contingency being what it really is–contingencies in the plural–there is always a chance that this manifesto will be part of a change, even if not the one intended by the authors. Manifestos are written by vanguards, and when vanguards fail, they reinvent themselves. It would be a disservice to call this process, permanent critique.

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