The proverbial admonishing to the physician to “heal thyself” is an apt idiom for the modern times. Globally, seasoned eco-political pundits nowadays proselyte from their pulpits about the crying need for economic reforms. Much of this sounds highly hollow, especially from those that were in power for a number of years. It begs the question as to why they now choose to rush through a raft of reforms by exhorting everyone to espouse their causes.
Similarly, some leaders of the ‘so-called’ developed world in the new millennium have made such a mess of their economies. They naively trusted in fact abdicated their authority to the unfettered magic of ‘free markets’. Therefore, for them to now jump on the bandwagon of reforms-sloganeering, after the event, makes them no less complicit. They are actually part of the problem, rather than the solution. They should hold their peace forever, just like wedding congregations are instructed to do so at a marriage solemnisation.
In the economically ravaged parts of Europe, it has become fashionable to put technocrats and economists as heads of Governments with the politicians in and out of parliaments sitting on the sidelines as spectators. These inheritors of near-bankrupt economies are then expected to inflict heart-wrenching fiscal measures on their populations. The jury is out as to whether these measures will eventually work effectively or else whether the technocrats will succumb as scapegoats. Once the fiscal deficit-reduction and debt reschedulements are satisfactorily concluded, the much maligned politicians will bounce back to return as the prodigal political sons. Be it in Italy or Greece, these politicians, waiting in the wings, will lead and ride the rejection waves as and when the tough measures bite and become unbearable. The technocrats may chicken out and will have engineered exits. So the political class are just biding their time and will re-enter, whether the reforms succeed or fail.
Therefore, political and electoral transformation must precede economic reforms, as the malaise and the rot start there right at the political fountainhead. Over the years, they were aided and abetted by the bureaucrats and the economists in each successive Government. The latter have always found the language and the logic to rationalise eloquently and thus justify and execute the will and the whims of their political masters. In the past, they may have cleverly covered up and earned their credibility stripes by window-dressing their views. Thus, they assiduously cultivated a larger than life public persona often by relying on fickle memories of the masses. Both the political masters and the public servants now look the other way, even if the latter had helped the former to make and lock the cupboards of political skeletons in the past.
Some leaders of the ‘so-called’ developed world in the new millennium have made such a mess of their economies. They naively trusted in fact abdicated their authority to the unfettered magic of ‘free markets’. Therefore, for them to now jump on the bandwagon of reforms-sloganeering, after the event, makes them no less complicit. They are actually part of the problem, rather than the solution. They should hold their peace forever, just like wedding congregations are instructed to do so at a marriage solemnisation.
If leaders are not groomed and nurtured, and thereby multiple choices made available at every level, it literally becomes a game of trial and error. Unfavourable practices creep in, such as making heroes out of zeroes. Family names and film stars become the accepted wisdom and rather unethical behaviour and deterioration in the body politic become the bane of good governance. Few nations, such as the city-states of Dubai and Singapore, seem to have dedicated institutions such as the Dubai School of Government and periodical leadership programmes that, quietly, prepare the next generation (‘gen-next’). This is how seeds are planted and carefully nourished to achieve growth and vitality. If you peel the veneer of the vibrancy of large democracies, you find men of straw geriatric leadership. Democracy and Governments thus become, literally, the last refuge in these countries for popular but corrupt or incompetent politicians, who could not make the cut in any other profession. Sometimes, it appears that it is hopeless to expect anything better because of the vicious grip of political parties and bureaucracies fed by collective and co-operative cronyism.
For instance, the concept of civil services introduced by the British in India was predicated on the so-called collector to administer the districts. Their job was to ensure the collection of revenues in the wide and far-flung colonies of the British Raj. Soon other colonists such as the French and the Dutch found this civil services concept worthy of replication, as it helped fund their standing armies and the police to repatriate wealth back home. The armed forces thus enforced the writ and the so-called rule of law that suited them. Today, one could conclude, cynically, that the nouveau riche have replaced the former colonial hold on power, with pliant and obliging bureaucrats, in some instances.
Bureaucrats, with some exceptions, tend to be find faults outside their own turfs that they are zealously protective of. In fact, the turf has become almost vast forestland. Governments, therefore, strayed far and wide, beyond their core competence of governance – their principal raison d’etre.
In the ultimate analyses, governance, political processes, public administration as well as criminal and civil justice dispensations et al, individually and taken together, are the institutions that need to be built, brick by brick. These important edifices and ingredients ought to be constantly evolving and resilient. Excellence in such matters is always going to be easier said than done.
Globally, all reformists have abundant eloquence and sharp intellect. What is in short supply are ‘do good-ers’ with effective and quiet deliverables, day after day! That is the challenge and deficiency that institutions must remedy soon and diligently!
The author is a veteran banker and now Chairman, Values Group.