Wondwossen Sintayehu, is an environmental lawyer involved in a number of biodiversity, climate change, and chemicals laws in Ethiopian and beyond. He was instrumental in coordinating the development of Ethiopia’s Climate Change Strategy, and the recent update to it known as Ethiopia’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Wondwossen co-initiated the Destiny Ethiopia process, that implemented the Transformative Scenario Planning process creating Ethiopia’s 2040 Scenarios, and its sequel – the Multistakeholder Initiative for National Dialogue (MIND), which laid the basis for an all-inclusive national dialogue process in Ethiopia. Currently, this platform has given way to the establishment of the fully mandated National Dialogue Commission which will hopefully consider the work undertaken by the MIND. Prior to this, he served as a judge at the Federal First Instance Court in Ethiopia presiding over civil and criminal cases. He is currently coordinating a programme known as Justice Transformation Lab, intended to initiate a multistakeholder process meant to transform the justice sector – task implemented by the Ministry of Justice, JLRTI, Destiny Ethiopia together and the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (https://www.hiil.org/) in the Netherlands. He leads the work for Natural Justice (https://naturaljustice.org/) Ethiopia segment, and is the co-founder of Eco-Justice Ethiopia (https://www.eco-justiceethiopia. org/).

Understanding the Process and Literature behind Destiny Ethiopia’s Initiative for Co-Creating Ethiopia’s Scenarios

December 03, 2019, was marked as one of those rare, hope-filled days for Ethiopians who, over the years, pondered on what holds the future of the country. More than 45 of the country’s prominent and influential figures representing divergent if not opposing views – sat across a vast podium and declared their unanimity and shared vision of a common national destiny.

Together, they charted out four scenarios among which one was endorsed as the most desirable future – for the realization of which they committed to collectively work together. Developed through dialogue amongst a diverse group of thinkers and actors to address Ethiopia’s deep-rooted challenges, the four scenarios predict four possible futures that may unfold in the next 20 years. The first scenario, Dawn expresses an inclusive future where human dignity is valued and cooperation gives access to holistic economic and political growth. The second scenario, characterized by Divided House, demonstrates divisions among regions to administer their territories and pursue their own, separate goals. The third scenario, Broken Chair, explains the government’s desire to meet challenges like unemployment and population growth but is constrained by its inability to effectively govern due to limited resources and lack of capacity. Finally, the fourth scenario, Hegemony, underlines the desire of an authoritarian government to hold power by any means necessary.

What led to the stunning sight of collectively declaring Dawn as a desirable route was a carefully facilitated but veiled interactive process spurred by a convening civic movement commonly referred to as the Destiny Ethiopia Initiative. This article gleans on the Science-Policy interface literature to elucidate what the mechanism of co-production was at play in the Ethiopian context and how this shaped thinking to result in a highly agreed-upon political instrument despite the tense and often unpredictable politico-social landscape.

It examines how knowledge exchange actually happened to inform collective decisions and transform actions. It looks into the methods and processes that helped reshape thinking to result in a shared vision for a common destiny through an unusual collaborative step between people with divergent and often “antagonistic” world views. The article attempts to narrow the apparent loopholes in collaborative knowledge production in science-policy spaces informed by the local experience of “participatory knowledge” creation in a developing country context. In this way, it presents the Destiny Ethiopia Initiative that aimed at spurring a multi-stakeholder, multidisciplinary process where all relevant voices were to be represented within a safe space to inform potential scenarios and pathways into the Ethiopian future.

Through a qualitative method that involved auto-ethnography and interviews, the research questions what the nature of knowledge generation and translation was and inform the mechanisms at play in similar circumstances and platforms.

Exploring the Literature

Science is constantly searching for the truth while politics seeks to win and preserve power in policy spaces often understood to be a heterogeneous, and complex patchwork, where diverse interactions, interrelations, and interdependencies take place (Sokolovska et al. 2019:2). The actors are often several and the nature of their interaction is influenced by a series of cross-scale drivers and complex feedback mechanisms (Norström et al. 2020:182). It is both oversimplified and erroneous to opine policy as barely briefed by specialists from scientific origins since plenty of other players are constitutional to the development of policies (Cartwright et al. 2012 & Cairney 2016). Understanding how several voices are listened to and designing mechanisms to ensure such voices are taken seriously is becoming imperative in the policy-making arena.

The term “knowledge” is broadly construed to mean locally generated know-hows, perceptions, and understandings – more akin to the reference of indigenous or local knowledge in the works of IPBES (Diaz et al 2015). The paper’s usage of the term is thus not directed to knowledge in the sense of expertise emanating from known competencies of epistemic authorities (Lidskog & Sunqvist 2018) but rather idea generators considered to be insightful according to the definition of the initiators of the Destiny Ethiopia process.

The translation of science into policy and practice has acquired great scholarly attention, with the heavy denunciation of the linear model, that presupposes direct and passive use of expert knowledge to inform policies, ignoring the values of circumstantial, normative, and complex processes for shaping policy and practice (Van Kerkhoff et al. 2006 & Pielke 2004, as cited in Wyborn 2015:293). Perceived failures of the linear model are becoming characteristics of the evident divide between science, policy, and practice (Wyborn 2015:293). Instead, collaborative knowledge production (co-production or co-creation) is often conceptualized as a tool for bringing together knowledge generators, policymakers, and end-users with a focus on “civic engagement, power-sharing, intersectional collaboration, processes, relationships, and conflict management” (Wengel et al. 2019: 312). It is considered as an efficient way to move “beyond the ivory tower.” (Greenhalg et al. 2016: 392).

Co-production of truth or knowledge is a pooled contribution of diverse actors and expertise to yield new understandings, intentions, and actions. It is a synergistic process of knowledge generation that includes a variety of disciplines as well as several more sectors of society (Pohl 2008). It has emerged as one essential tool to deal with disparities between science and policy groups (Lemos et al. 2005). Social processes that strengthen co-production take exchanges, coexistence, and collective knowledge production into consideration (Van den Hove 2007:807).

A recent review indicates that conditional cooperation, effective communication, and trust determine the efficacy of collaborative planning.

Hence, it is a collective endeavor where multiple stakeholders from other sectors collaborate for knowledge production (Pohl 2008). The newly generated knowledge is becoming an element of political activity that feeds into political decision-making (Sokolovska et al. 2019:3). However much the benefits of collaboration are understood by society, peoples’ willingness and participation in collaborative efforts are often seriously questioned. The claim that mutual benefit drives societal interest to collaborate has long been contested. A recent review indicates that conditional cooperation, effective communication, and trust determine the efficacy of collaborative planning. Knowledge is not confined within the realm of a few “codified scientific expertise” but rather rests in “every democratic citizen and not specific subpopulations qualified by dint of specialist experience-based knowledge”. And so, co-creative spaces are discovered offering better interaction between two worlds, allowing for the formation of specific policy products while also enhancing the relationship between collaborators which eventually enables them to work and act together. Recently, collaborative knowledge-making is observed to expand into global scientific assessments. The literature is referring to more “participatory knowledge” or “citizen science” particularly at global science-policy platforms (ex: Turnhout et al. 2019: 193).


The process attained its legitimacy as a result of it being spurred by citizens, rather than the government or other interested parties. This has been amplified by the progenitors of the process that referred to themselves as the convening group, or just the core group of the Destiny Ethiopia process. The group is composed of nine Ethiopian citizens that are concerned about the current state of affairs in Ethiopia. The thirteen individuals (later reduced to nine), initially friends, or friends of friends, represent various worldviews, academic backgrounds, as well as ethnic and religious diversities. As per the coordinator of the group, it is “a microcosm of the fifty individuals selected later as representative of the Ethiopian landscape.” Beyond the setting of selection parameters such as representativeness of political viewpoints, social influence, academic inference, etc. important markers known as “fillers” were also included.

The author, being one of the founders of the Destiny Ethiopia Initiative, conducts the study with the purpose of shedding light on arguments and claims from first-hand information. Thus, combinations of auto-ethnography and other qualitative research tools that comprise focus groups, interviews, and recollection from personal accounts are employed to corroborate arguments with evidence. It discusses how this unique space was created and used to funnel divergent views to assist the collectivity in arriving at a common understanding of Ethiopia’s future scenarios.

A Phased Approach

The Ethiopian Scenario Development process involved three distinct and phased processes – each held at different times, and serving different processes with a common factor that each leads to collaboration among the actors. The Destiny Ethiopia process understood convening as “the vital” component of the Transformative Scenario Planning process.

The conveners at Destiny Ethiopia (including the author of this article followed a staged approach where the first step was the development of a pool list. This is a wish-list of 250 to 300 Ethiopians considered as significantly influential and has some constituencies which they could in turn influence. More than 250 people were identified across the Ethiopian socio-political landscape. The Destiny Ethiopia team then developed a multi-criteria assessment (MCA) to distill and arrive at a mix of 50 influential people for each of which was assigned potential interlocutors among friends and friends of friends.

This was a painstaking process that involved immense debates among the team. This is in spite of the agreement the team had to suspend judgment and be free from personal biases before doing envisaged tasks. The MCA was able to arrive at some level of balanced coverage of people from all walks of life – including parties, civil society, academia, media, and the art world. It also pointed at the need to have proper geographic representation. The other precaution was the maintenance of gender and age balance which the team of conveners took caution. At all times, the convening team made sure that the selected team members were influential, insightful and committed to effecting a change in the system. A couple of observations were made when the final list was agreed to by the Destiny Ethiopia conveners which included: 1) achievement of balance was a painstaking process.

Trust is a rare commodity quintessential for the success of such a high-profile process involving participants with a diverging understanding of the current reality and the future.

The convening process was carefully implemented to attain inclusivity and ensure that entrants can envisage a safe environment where the flow of ideas is unfettered and their voices are represented as uttered by them. An instance of such an assurance was the results of the dialogic interviews which served as a basis of conversation at the first workshop. Each participant was able to notice their specific wordings and historical accounts in the synthesis report presented to spur their initial discussion. The reports carried verbatim quotes from their enrollment interviews administered in advance of their interviews.

Creating a safe space for scenario construction

One significant aspect of the co-creative process was the creation of a safe space for participants to engage in dialogues. Trust is a rare commodity quintessential for the success of such a high-profile process involving participants with a diverging understanding of the current reality and the future. One of the measures that needed to be considered as the requirement of making it a clandestine operation. This is counterintuitive to other SPI processes, which need to embrace transparency and process exposition from the outset. Aside from the apparent safety it creates, some participants are noted to be attracted by the absolute secrecy of the workshops they are invited to pass through.

Establishing a safe space that can be trusted for uninhibited exchange of views by the participants rather than a platform for value-blind multiculturalism (Meseret et al. 2018), thus required meticulous facilitation that nurtures and propagates trust about the process amongst the scenario team members. In such spaces, scenario team members engage in their collective quest for creating meaning for current problems.

One of the principles enshrined and repeated throughout the six months process was what was known as the “Democracy of Time.” This is intended to bring the perception of equality among participants thereby perceived hierarchy lines among them. This was important as some of the members were veteran politicians that have been in leadership, were imprisoned, or exiled for long years as a result of espousing viewpoints inconsistent with the ruling government. While others in the ST grouping were young activists, artists, or media people that may be intimidated to be placed on equal platforms with politicians. Hierarchies or perceptions thereof is thought to inhibit free exchange of ideas and was needed to be dealt with at the very start.

There was a need to level the playing field for all and the notion of “democracy of time” played its own role in the creation of a “safe space” for each entrant realizing all rules work for everyone. To ensure the democracy of time, the facilitators apportioned equal slots of time to make interventions. Before interventions, participants would be told the amount of time allotted for the specific sessions. At the lapse of the allotted time against a speaker, the facilitator rings a handbell, and the speaker stops, even if it was in the middle of an unfinished thought, thereby showing that discipline is more important than the message. At the end of the process one participant reflected on this:

Ethiopia’s politics is marked by the conception that the politician knows for the people, and that [he] has the mandate to speak for and on behalf of the people. Politicians barely listen to the people. Most times we should listen rather than blabber about things we know and things we don’t know. We have learned [through the Destiny Ethiopia process] the discipline of economizing our speech and abiding by rules of discipline.

A major opposition party representative later indicated that this knowledge has been translated into a party disciplining technique. Their party deliberations are now “perfectly timed” where non-adherence is penalized by fines.

Story Telling Sessions

One expression of a safe space for dialogue is the creation of a space for deep, informal, personal conversations. In facilitated processes, story sessions allow participants to co-create and build common narratives (Bojer 2021). Through the Destiny Ethiopia process, these spaces were named “storytelling sessions’’– informal set-ups typically held after dinners, with participants surrounding lit candles and a room filled with an aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the traditional Ethiopian Coffee ceremony style. Here group conversations take place where everyone has to listen to a single person that has a story to share. Pacesetters are encouraged and confirmed in advance of the gathering. The informality of the sessions would lead the participants to dig deep into their most intimate stories and share them with the audience in a collegial spirit that would crack the hearts of the audience. Largely hinged on personal accounts of the participants, the stories being shared often do not relate to thematic issues raised during the formal sessions of the meetings, apparently nurturing familiarity among and trust among participants.

Sustaining Integrity

In-group dynamics, it is important but seems difficult to sustain mutually respectful behavior; which did not prove difficult to attain in our case. This is what happened in the transformative scenario planning process in Ethiopia when it came to abiding by the rule of keeping process confidentiality until a certain fixed date. A verbal agreement was reached among participants in an effort not to divulge information about the process until the launch date. The agreement entered into during the commencement in May 2019 was still standing and respected until the launch in December 2019. While honoring such ‘loose’ agreements is not atypical, such a high degree of discipline is quite uncommon given the fact that some of the participants are social media activists, bloggers, and media house owners.

Part two of this article, which discusses scenario building, knowledge integration process, and outcome preview will be
published in subsequent editions.


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