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Monday, 7 June 2010

Notes from ZBTR Interview (Part 1) : Ideas vs Implementation

This weekend, I appeared on Zambia Blog Talk Radio for 40 minutes or so to talk about the Elections 2011 Project (an extensive show is also planned on Diaspora Voice). Three very interesting questions were asked, among many others, which I thought are worth sharing / expanding on with readers. I will do this in three separate short posts. The first of this related to the urgency of implementation relative to ideas generation :

Zambia has enough / plenty of ideas what we are lacking is implementation. Why do we need any more ideas? 
This appears to be a well rehearsed argument. The interviewer had suggested that a prior guest Mr Bob Sichinga had made the same comment. Although this has some merit, I believe such an argument is misplaced for four reasons .

First, you can never have enough ideas. History has shown that empires that have dominated for some time have usually gone into decline or failed to tap into potential for lack of generation of new ideas. Economic historians have for some time been puzzled on why Portugal, so prosperous in the 15th century began to
decline from thereafter. A lot of reasons can be put forward, but one common and unmistakable reason was the decline in the trade of ideas. In Francis Parry's 1670 observations, "the people are so little curious that no man knows more than what is merely necessary for him". A view echoed by the 18th Century visitor to Portugal, Mary Brearley, "the bulk of the people were disinclined to independence of thought and, in all but few instances, too much averse for intellectual activity to question what they have learned".  China a maritime power prior to the 1500s, pretty much failed to take advantage of its dominance and spark an industrial revolution because it began to look inward and was not open to new ideas. Ideas and new ways of thinking are critical for Zambia to develop. In my view we need as much ideas generation as possible. The pursuit of knowledge and new ways of thinking must drive a modern Zambian state.

Second, the source of  ideas is critical - although Zambia has plenty of  ideas much of the ideas that drive  government policy are imported from abroad with no originality. Very few policies are genuinely developed by Zambians. Most of the reforms are drafted by World Bank, EU and IMF officials who then pass them onto Zambian policy makers - we have catalogued these in the past. Much of the economic policy is generated that way. I don't know whether ordinary Zambians are aware of this fact, but that is truth. I have in the past received emails from those "parachuted" into Zambia by western governments / NGOs to "help Zambians think through issues". Nothing wrong with learning from others (especially country successes). However, we must remember that no development or economic renewal has ever occurred without home grown thinkers. Experience from countries such as South Korea and China show that it is better to rely on  your own experts to devise solutions. These experts may not be educated in the finest institutions in the west, but their understanding of local constraints and care for the implication of their advice more than compensates for what western sponsored advisers might offer. We must abandon the soft bigotry of low expectations.  The other point is true development is not what one has but how one has got it that determines whether a country is developed or not. There's a big difference with the USA giving you many computers that helps you organise your resources better and you developing your own resources for achieving the same. Domestic generated ideas are an outworking of real development, foreign ideas, though useful are not- see Development without development.

Thirdly, the process of sharing ideas is vital - once ideas are generated there must be a good mechanism for sharing and testing out these ideas. At the national level this means that where different experts are able to come up with good ideas, say for mining policies, there must be a good forum for how these ideas are tested out. This usually calls for an approach that has two key features : non-partisan and consultative. The problem in Zambia at present is that even if Mulenga has a good idea, there's no viable mechanism for him to communicate this to government in a non-partisan way. Someone may say, well  Mulenga can simply speak to the Permanent Secretary! Well at present the chances are that the Permanent Secretary is a party cadre with his eyes on the next election seat. If Mulenga is in the diaspora, its even worse, he can't go to the embassy official because in Zambia we have no genuine career diplomats. They are all party operators. So to overcome this partisanship there's need for citizen driven initiatives to undertaken independent non-partisan approaches that brings in all players. If one constituent decides to continue being partisan, well that is their fault. The key is to begin changing peoples' mindset.  Which brings me to the "consultative" element. At present what we are also missing is a good open way of engaging people. The Indaba supposedly "consultative" up to this day has never delivered a report. Money wasted on meaningless jabber.  Indeed the process leading up to that was so unconsultative that the leading opposition parties boycotted it. What kind of meaningful dialogue can take place when those who represent nearly 50% of the country in Parliament are absent? Again citizen driven initiatives can begin to demonstrate to all players the value in consultation.

Finally, there's no tension between ideas and development. It should immediately become obvious from the aforementioned points that effective ideas generation is pivotal to implementation. It is not like the ideas are on one end and implementation is on the other. Rather ideas generation and implementation should be seen as a unbroken stream of effective policy. Poor ideas lead to ineffective implementation. Similarly good ideas are those that work or can be implemented! Its the whole that is important. To say we have one without the other is missing a key tenet of good policy making.

So to bring it all together, I would say that the Sichinga mentality is grossly mistaken. Not only do we need more ideas, we also need real Zambian ideas working themselves out through a consultative and non-partisan approach. I believe that given  the polarised nature of our politics, non-political players are best suited to begin to take forward such intellectual leadership.

(Part 2 will follow tomorrow).

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