Friday, April 23, 2010

Speaking truth to power

Dear Colleagues

As far as I can tell, human character has not changed very much over the past several thousand years. The structure of society does not change very much ... the dynamic of greed remains a core part of the decision making process.

Increased education helped to change things, but not as much as might have been expected. There are, of course, notable exceptions, like Mahatma Gandhi who spoke out and changed the power profile of the British Empire. Martin Luther King spoke out against racial segregation in the United States and changed another power establishment. Nelson Mandela was another figure that spoke truth to power and changed the trajectory of South Africa.

But in the main ... the people with money, power and influence get to do what they want on their own terms, without much interference from those who know what would be better, but do not have the courage to speak or the platform to get heard. The powerful establishment can pay for support ... and in turn have more money to buy more support. Those that know what would be better are not part of the dialog, and to the extent they get close ... speaking truth to power may not be good for their health.

Most poor countries could have much better socio-economic outcomes if the governance was better, the policies were better and corruption was eliminated ... but this would cause disruption to the elite economic oligarchy, including powerful international corporate interests.

Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel. The socio-economic performance of Singapore going back to the 1960s can teach some lessons. Good governance ... good policies ... no corruption and a strong collaboration with global corporate organizations that integrated with all the domestic socio-economic agenda of the country and there has been 50 years of good progress.

Brazil, Russia, India and China have morphed in socio-economic terms over the past 20 years ... better governance, better policies, less corruption and an integration of local and international economic actors has produced good progress.

But some countries are still constrained by the straitjacket of their power elites who control everything ... and though this may benefit the oligarchy, society as a whole pays the prices. Countries that are in this situation need help ... but they rarely get it.

Over several decades, I have been disappointed at the ineffectiveness of organizations like the World Bank and the IMF in addressing this effectively ... as well as the major multinational corporations ... as well as bilateral government agencies ... as well as the well-meaning NGOs. I am not sure why this disappointment ... but it is probably because few are willing to stand up and speak truth to power. Better not to rock the boat ... better to tolerate what exists because by standing up things might be aggravated.

I know the World Bank has never taken kindly to criticism of its projects ... nor the United Nations ... nor any of the bilateral development agencies. Since these are the organizations that fund much of the relief and development industry ... speaking truth to these organizations is career suicide. It is not, therefore, surprising that they do not get to hear much of the critical analysis of their work ... which explains, in fact the observation made by Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid about development assistance for Africa: "Sixty years and a trillion dollars and little to show for it ... there has to be a better way!".

There are better ways ... but there has to be some courageous "speaking truth to power".


Peter Burgess

No comments:

Post a Comment