Monday, December 01, 2014

Governance failure - patterns that connect

Vastely different contexts but essentially the same issue and need - governance failure and a need for systemic governance reform.

The first an article by Thomas Friedman looks to the Middle East and the litany of policy failures, particularly by the US and its allies. He says:

"Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratisation in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and now re-intervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.

Maybe the beginning of wisdom is admitting that we don't know what we're doing out here and, more important, we don't have the will to invest overwhelming force for the time it would take to reshape any of these places – and, even if we did, it is not clear it would work.

So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what's left? I'm for "containment" and "amplification"."

So what is amplification and containment? Friedman goes on to explain what he means:

"How so? Where there is disorder – Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya – collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we're doing today. I just hope we don't get in more deeply. Where there is imposed order – Egypt, Algeria – work quietly with the government to try to make that order more decent, just, inclusive and legitimate. Where there is already order and decency – Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates – do everything to amplify it, so it becomes more consensual and sustainable. And where there is order, decency and democracy – Tunisia – give  them as much money as they ask for (which we haven't done).

But never forget: We can only amplify what they do. When we start change or it depends on our staying power, it is not self-sustaining – the most important value in international relations. When it starts with them, it can be self-sustaining."

Friedman's claim that 'when it starts with them, it can be self sustaining' could well be understood as a rallying call for governance reform as much in the USA, or in fact any nation, as in the Middle East. The USA and Israel fostered systemic failure of democratic emergence when they failed to appreciate what Hamas had to do to become, and would have had to do to stay as, the elected government of Gaza.  The same could be said of  Egypt.  Equally the case of the Federal seat of Indi, in Victoria, Australia, won through a grass roots campaign that threw out the local sitting member, speaks to Friedman's adage of ...when it starts with them.....!

Friedman's claims extend beyond political governance to that of how we govern our relations with the biophysical world and with other species.  The second case I want to highlight is  a new report which concerns the runaway over exploitation of our forests:

“Throughout the tropics, staggering amounts of land have been designated for natural resource extraction—as much as 40 percent of Peru, 30 percent of Indonesia and 35 percent of Liberia. However, much of this land is already in use; it is being inhabited by local communities and indigenous peoples. And while it is possible to live on and extract resources from the same land, when local communities are not consulted in this exchange, conflict may erupt.”

This is systemic failure of governance of the most perverse kind because the circumstances for determining their futures are denied to local and indigenous communities.  It is the same issue with the Tanzanian government's attempts to exclude the Masai from their traditional lands. 

These pressing challenges directly confront the relevance of contemporary research practice - particularly in the social domain.  Victor Galaz recently wrote that:

"Having spent years and years in academia writing papers, and attending scientific conferences, workshops and meetings I’ve come to realize that social science scholars, including myself, are failing. The social sciences clearly have a lot of important things to say about global risks. But knowledge is becoming so specialized and fragmented, that I sincerely fear it is loosing touch with the risks posed by the interacting environmental and socio-technological unfolding around us..........This fragmentation is not only troubling but also downright dangerous. The next generation of decision-makers and social scientists not only need to disrupt disciplinary barriers, but also base their work from the observation that tomorrow’s global environmental risks are dynamic. When the G20 this weekend gathers to discuss proposals to reform global institutions, the emphasis should not only be placed on the international community’s ability to prevent and respond to global risks. It should also explore alternative models of governance able to help break paralyzing political “gridlocks”; navigate the potential transgression of devastating ecological and biophysical thresholds; and promote innovation that span beyond quick techno-fixes. And last but not least: promote international institutional reforms that are perceived by the general public as transparent, and legitimate."

It is not only research practice but the design of public policy.  Take for example the situation with the locally-based Landcare model in Australia.  As outlined recently:

Among the environmental fallout of the federal budget, Australia’s Landcare program has taken a hit, losing A$484 million. In return, the government’s environmental centrepiece, the Green Army, receives A$525 million.   But switching money from Landcare to the Green Army is trading down for a less effective conservation model. It also repeats a pattern of reduced funding and weakened delivery started under former Prime Minister John Howard, and confuses improved agricultural productivity with improved environmental management.

This is yet another example of command and control approaches to policy development which undermine institutions that enable governance that is self-sustaining because it begins with them!

Failing governance - an emerging conversation

A recent survey has found that Australian voters are unhappy with their elected representatives and want the political system reformed.

At least a conversation of sorts is starting around this important issue.  The Victorian election on Saturday can only add more evidence for the need for reform whether it is the way the upper house seats are now being determined by complex preference deals that game 'the system' to the fact that with over 11% of the primary vote the Greens only have one lower house candidate elected (although they look like having five in the upper house).

Of course representative politics is but one aspect of the need for governance reform.

The economic case for fossil fuel divestment

"Leaving aside the ethics of divestment and pursuing a purely rational economic analysis, the cold hard numbers of putting money into fossil fuels don’t look good.

Unless universities are willing to bet on the destruction of the planet they have committed themselves to understanding and preserving, divestment from fossil fuels is the only choice they can make. Forward-thinking investors of all kinds would be wise to follow suit."