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.

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Walk a Mile in These Shoes

[Originally published in shorter form in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Timorese GirlAttendees of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, received an invitation from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ‘an event you will never forget’. The event, called the Refugee Run , is a Disneyland-style re-enactment of life in a refugee camp.

I can’t speak for the guests, but the image of champagne-and-caviar billionaires spending a couple of hours scuffing their loafers with designer dust behind artfully laid out barbed wire before returning to their luxury hotels – well, that is something I won’t soon forget. No matter how hard I try.

Not that we needed any reminder of just how out of touch the majority of those living in privilege really are, but this event starkly illustrates just how great the chasm between rich and poor really is. It is an object lesson on how easy it is for even the most high-minded among us to mistakenly confuse poverty with a lack of physical wealth.

According to apologists, the Davos refugee sideshow is really an exercise in visualisation. By simulating the experience of powerlessness and intimidation most refugees feel, our captains of industry will be brought closer to them, making it easier for them to bestow their largesse on the dispossessed.

That idea isn’t utterly without merit, but I can say from experience that even a visit to a real refugee camp does very little indeed to convey the refugee experience. It’s one thing to see patience, resignation and demoralisation in the eyes of another; it’s another thing entirely to live it over a space of months, often years.

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