05 March 2007

Don't lose sight of societal goals

Reviewing The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U the current Economist (subscription) says

There is much in [his] argument; and it is easy to share the exasperation he seems to feel with some exiled lobbyists. Some have so lost sight of the ends in pursuing the means that each new government sanction or consumer-boycott-induced withdrawal of a foreign investor is celebrated as a triumph in itself.
This confusion between means and ends is rife in the world today. Instead of societal goals, aspirations and values, ever more of our lives is determined by institutional goals, especially those of the larger organisations including government and its myriad agencies. It is all totally understandable, and quite rational given the incentives under which we currently operate. But it is also quite at odds with our broader purposes as a society. The exiled Burmese about whom Thant Myint-U writes would probably rationalise their support of a boycott of Burmese-made products as a way of further isolating the Burmese junta, and presumably hastening its end. This is questionable, but what is not up for debate is that the quality of life of the average Burmese suffers. As Thant Myint-U puts it:
[I]magine for a moment that somehow, miraculously, extremely tight sanctions were possible – involving China, India and Thailand – and that these brought the government to its knees, without a dollar or renminbi left to pay for vital imports. While there is a possibility that reasonable heads would prevail, there is also a very good chance that the army leadership would stay in their F├╝hrerbunker until the bitter end, as the country collapsed into anarchy around them. Many of those who support sanctions hope that greater outside pressure would lead to disagreements within the army. Nothing could be more dangerous: the country could easily fall apart into dozens of competing military factions, insurgent armies and drug warlord militias. If that happened, all the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn’t be enough to put Burma back together; it would be a disaster for Asia.
But then what are well-meaning supporters of the Burmese to do? In my view, they should define exactly what they want to achieve: presumably an end to the military dictatorship and some increase in the broadly-defined quality of life of the poorest and average Burmese. Then they could contract out the achievement of their targeted objective to whoever is best-placed to do the necessary work, perhaps by issuing 'Burma Democracy Bonds', on the Social Policy Bond principle. It would be up to the investors in these bonds to achieve this goal as efficiently as possible. They might try to achieve the goal in ways that a group of high-minded exiles cannot: they could bribe the most pliable of the current junta with one-way first-class tickets to the golfing resort of their choice for an indefinitely long holiday. They could finance the operation of a credible government-in-exile, with attendant media coverage. Whatever their course of action, it would never lose sight of its actual aims, because that would mean less financial reward for the investors. I realize that this sounds far-fetched, but the alternative has been tried for a long time, and it isn't working.

Burma is just one example. There are others, where the aims as expressed through actions of certain spokespeople - perhaps more cynical and less high-minded - are completely at odds with those of the people they are supposed to represent. The Palestinians spring to mind most readily, but such hijacking of the societal good by those who think or say they know how best to achieve it is unfortunately a common, and seemingly inevitable, aspect of current politics. I have blogged below, about environmental organisations and how, in my view anyway, the naive actions of some of their membership are more likely to repel than attract potential supporters and so reduce the chances of actually helping bring about the environmental goals they say they wish to achieve. Especially in politics and the environment, we find that institutions - sometimes unconsciously, I am sure - come to see their own goals as more important than those of society.

My suggestion is that we try subordinating all our actions to agreed, explicit, transparent and meaningful outcomes. Contract out the achievement of our social and environmental goals to the private sector, without prejudice as to how they shall be achieved. Given the complexity of our society, with its distractions, its profusion of linkages and time lags that, I believe, is the only way we can be sure that our goals aren't corrupted and our energies aren't dissipated.

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