Planners and Searchers

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Fifty years ago, Charles E. Lindblom, a professor at Yale University published an essay entitled ‘The Science of “Muddling Through”.’ The paper’s main point was stated briefly and simply: We can’t know everything about anything. So, as long as we’re just muddling through an imperfect world with only imperfect knowledge, we’d just as soon admit it.

At the heart of Lindblom’s rationale is the contention that even if we could know everything, we’d never be able to adequately express the value of competing development priorities. Therefore, we should work within our limitations, reduce the scope of our planning activities and allow competing interests to adjust to each other over time.

In a column marking the 50th anniversary of this seminal essay, Financial Times columnist John Kay remarks that, while contemporary economists may have scoffed at what they considered to be an unscientific and benighted approach to policy and planning, Lindblom’s gradualist approach has largely been vindicated.

Kay’s take on gradualism is filtered through the eyes of a businessman. Noted development economist William Easterly, however, celebrates Lindblom’s work as the only really workable model for developing countries.

Easterly is sometimes known as ‘the man without a plan’, a title bestowed on him by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in an appreciative but not entirely flattering review of his work in Foreign Affairs magazine. Easterly riffs on Lindblom’s ‘muddling through’ approach as he develops the idea that most development aid projects are driven by Planners, whose top-down, all-encompassing vision tends, he says, to produce ineffectual and inappropriate plans.

Easterly suggests that we need Searchers, people with intimate knowledge of local conditions who know best how to muddle through their often bewildering environment, moving in small steps toward the greater goals of social empowerment and economic prosperity. His vision is of a bottom-up approach to development that is more opportunistic than deliberate.

One example of Planners vs Searchers particularly close to my heart is the case of over 100,000 internally displaced people in Timor Leste, burnt out or chased from their homes during the civil disturbances in 20076. When newly elected Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao asked a prominent UN agency for assistance in dealing with the problem, he was presented with an 8-10 year timeline, during which all human needs would be assessed, community healing and development activities would be embarked upon, and eventually, houses built.

Xanana baulked. The very idea of leaving 10% of the population living in refugee tents for the better part of a decade was unconscionable. He then took the radical step of actually asking the displaced population what they wanted. The answer was simple and direct: ‘We don’t care about anything but going home.’

In a move that drew the ire of many development agencies, he offered them lump sums of cash to help pay for the reconstruction of their homes and sent them on their way.

Xanana’s government wasn’t so foolish as to believe that their work was done. They recognised that there would be further problems, that some of the money might be misused or otherwise wasted. They knew that there was a great deal more to be done to build the health of communities torn by decades of strife. But within 18 months, they had reduced the number of people living in tents to a few paltry thousands.

Vanuatu is currently facing a choice which pits planners against searchers. The World Bank recently published an assessment of the possibilities for creating a regional fibre-optic communications network joining some or all Pacific nations. Among the options considered were a comprehensive regional plan for countries to share the costs of regional deployment and a more piecemeal country-by-country approach.

The contrast between the two approaches is fascinating for anyone interested in development processes. Both alternatives have much to recommend them. The Pacific is small enough that it’s possible to develop a pretty detailed list of variables influencing such a project. Within reasonable limits, the Pacific is actually more suitable to top-down development approaches than just about any other region in the world.

But while we can safely enumerate the majority of factors affecting a project such as this, we are much more limited in terms of reconciling competing priorities. Few generalisations, if any, can be made that are true of Vanuatu and all – or even some – of its Pacific neighbours. Even among Melanesian countries, the state of readiness and capability with regard to an international fibre-optic link diverges widely.

The planners in this case are represented by those touting the South Pacific Island Network, or SPIN. Backed largely by the prospect of significant financial support from France, who want a fibre link joining New Caledonia to French Polynesia, they’ve been trying to bring other nations onto the bandwagon. The idea is that national governments chip in for their own segments of cable, and manage the connection themselves, or contract its management to the most able local organisation. In most cases, this would be the national telecoms operator.

The searchers, on the other hand, are best exemplified by a small Vanuatu-based group led by local entrepreneur Simon Fletcher. He’s been wrestling with communications issues for years now, and has recently come up with a plan to provide a modest link joining Vanuatu to New Caledonia. By allowing a few design compromises into his plan (making it slightly less capable than a planner might want), he’s formulated a simple approach that could quickly deliver up to a gigabit of higher-quality Internet bandwidth for prices that could compete quite nicely with the best available satellite service.

Will the planners win out in the end, or the searchers? I’d prefer not to speculate right now. While my personal sympathies lean toward small-scale, bottom-up approaches like Fletcher’s, I’ve learned that it’s unwise to ignore high-level strategy. While a simple, quickly workable plan has much to recommend it, it never hurts to consider it in terms of longer-term goals. And in Vanuatu, they’re easier to enumerate and express than in most other nations.

That said, Vanuatu’s decision makers can’t sit still forever. At some point, they’ve got to get on with muddling through the reefs and shoals of development planning and sign on to someone’s plan. While it may behoove some to play for time, we will inevitably have to commit to improving our national communications capacity.

Doing so quickly could have quite a salutary effect on the local market. Once our current incumbents get comfortable, it’s not unimaginable that they might want to start consolidating their position, with an eye to keeping upstarts out. The presence of a neutral backbone communications provider with no vested interest in the status quo could enhance competitive market forces significantly.

Unfortunately, precipitate decisions are hard to act on if we want backing from more planning-oriented institutions like the World Bank. These innately cautious agencies are designed such that it’s difficult to act without a comprehensive assessment (which is not to say understanding) of a given undertaking. On the positive side, once their projects develop momentum, it’s really hard to stop them.

Vanuatu’s patient dismantling of the telecommunications monopoly was made possible on large part due to the assistance of the World Bank, and its success provides an important example for our neighbours.

But our success was largely due to a small contingent of individuals whom Easterly would not hesitate to identify as searchers through and through. It’s time once again to do a little searching, and to plan a way to continue Vanuatu’s march toward leadership in communications in the Pacific.