Policy: Wisdom or Metaphors?

Crisis is in the air! You cannot switch on the TV without hearing “crisis!” Every few days there is a conference on the crisis. I attended one in Dubai recently and enjoyed the discussion but left me a little uneasy. Let me see if I can explain?

I guess what really concerned me was that the hall was in a “fix it” mode. They all felt that the crisis needed fixing and the refrain was that “we” should fix it. Of course the list of what was to be fixed was long: the financial crisis, coming water crisis, the food crisis, health issues and not to forget the environment issue (thanks Al gore).

Who is “we?” The answer ranged from the government to civil society and everything in between. The collective “we” was difficult to comprehend. How is it that the government, civil society, private sector the market and the international community are all going to work together when it has never happened (other than wartime)? But the gathering was in an engineering mode. Suggestions were flying around on this supposed collaboration building a new order, delivering welfare, cleaning the environment, educating kids and looking after the needy.

By then we were in the comfort zone of agreement and wishing! No one wished to go deeper into issues to question this collective “we!” No country works in this collective “we” sense. All countries are a collection of interests including those of the government, businesses, various parts of civil society which may not all be in agreement with each other and of course these days very importantly those of external powers and markets. More often than not it is difficult to think of these in any collective sense leave alone as an entity acting in unison as in “we!”

Can all social and economic problems be engineered through simple solutions like “building education”, “providing public amenities to all!” and “achieving food security?” Just look at post war history of development with the IFIs and many development-aid agencies throwing their might—intellectual and economic—at combating underdevelopment. The record is not so great poverty persists and a billion people remain stubbornly below the poverty line.

We should all be humbled by this experience and resist the “we” in our policy suggestions and most importantly oppose simplistic solutions. Society is a complex system that resists intervention and ill thought out interventions can have unintended and often unpalatable consequences. We thought the big dams were a solution only to learn after the event of their environmental consequences. Excessive reliance on cars led to public transport systems to decline and suburban model of city development to take root. Now with Mother Nature fighting back, we are learning to think differently. Education systems were built in denial of globalization only to lead to youth unemployment.

Solutions to society’s problems need careful study and research in each and every situation and location. The rush to a solution through a casual allusion to a passing acquaintance with what happened in the West could lead to surprisingly undesirable results. Many countries have spent decades building an outmoded car industry taxing their populations only to find mounting losses.

But then at such gatherings there are always some people (often the more influential ones) who say that the solutions are well known, we just do not have implementation capacity. All we need to do is develop management skills. Then the business school metaphor takes over. We need better managers and leaders. We need better strategizing and more project management. After all the knowledge of what needs to be done is easy and here the speaker will allude to what happened in the US, Europe or to the Asian tigers as if we all have a complete analysis of what happened there.

This refrain of “prescriptions are available: we need implementation” too would be humbled if it is confronted with evidence of how efforts at aping different country experience in many countries have failed. The debate about what how countries developed is still on. Perhaps the only lesson that strongly emerges (and Dubai is a clear example of it): everyone must follow their own path and this path is one of innovation (again Dubai is a good example).

Then there was the notion that the government can and should deliver on the various objectives. Here military metaphors were frequently used. “Those in the front line must fight the war against the crisis.” A lot of emphasis on strategy and leadership and winning with many analogies to war! The conclusion is clear we need generals, actors and doers. We can dispense with the thinking! Charge!

But charge at what?

Let us step back and reflect! Let us not forget that it was the army and business school metaphors that the pre crisis world was built on. It was those strategies that generated wanton financial warfare and it was that leadership that gave us Enron, Citibank and Lehman. The government too was at war on drugs, on poverty, on terror while the volcano was building up!

What should then be done instead? Perhaps a more thoughtful discourse somewhat more humbled and less of those military and business metaphors. A discourse that is mindful of society’s complexity, respectful of knowledge not action, sensitive to research and new ideas and always aware of the need to focus and innovate. In our rush to business school and army metaphors, maybe we are forgetting that knowledge and wisdom are the leaders of the charge. I know in this world it is unwise to talk of the classics and philosophy but I was reminded us all of Plato and his Republic that was based on “philosopher kings” dedicated to wisdom and learning. Kids used to learn of Plato before business schools took on the military metaphor.

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