Change (ing the world)?

Interesting exchange this past week with @transitionland on Twitter. She asked:

“Does *anyone* really say “I want to save the world”? I’ve never said that. Ever.”

What immediately came to mind is that probably only Bono wakes up every morning to that thought. Actually, he probably doesn’t just think about wanting to save the world, but likely believes he is already well on his way to accomplishing that goal (but that’s a different story/rant).

Bono - saving the world?
Bono - saving the world?

This spawned a discussion about the different perceptions of the possibility of change – what constrains it, what fuels it and why. Mind you, all in 140 character bites. It got me thinking a bit about change and political systems – how different cultures understand change and evolution at the macro level.

In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama, whose main campaign rallying cry was : “Change we can believe in”. Let’s not talk about whether things have actually changed since his election – rather, I wanted to touch on the way in which Americans construe the possibility of change. 

The belief in the “American Dream” rests upon the assumption that social, political and economic mobility is not only possible, but within the reach of each individual. As Alain de Botton put it in a recent TED talk, in individualistic societies – such as the U.S. – people own their successes as well as their failures. Knowing that your situation can evolve, that hard work pays off, is only as liberating as it is anxiety-inducing: when you struggle to make ends meet, or are on the verge of bankruptcy, it is distressing to think and be told that your failure to succeed is your own fault. There seems to be a pervasive notion in the U.S. that the principles upon which institutions have been founded are not only absolute and timeless, but also designed to create the most advantageous environment for individuals to thrive in.  The fact that the U.S. emerged from the 20th century as the dominant world power, and that, at home, incredible wealth was derived from innovation and entrepreneurship, gives credence to this idea.

Interestingly, though, this fervent belief in the malleability of one’s life does not translate in the realm of institutions – at least not American ones. Indeed, Americans are extremely attached to the structures laid out in the Constitution, as well as to the institutions that have shaped American life for over two centuries now. Since the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there have been a total of 27 amendments to it – 10 of them, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified at the same time as the Constitution itself. The 17 amendments that followed mostly “expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.”

(In contrast, France has known five Republics since 1789 – each with its own constitution. The last revision of the French constitution, in 2008, modified 39 of the 92 articles, created nine new ones, and repealed three constitutional provisions. Only 32 of the 92 articles have not been modified since 1958, when the Constitution was adopted. Compare this to the 27 changes the U.S. Constitution has known in 220 years of existence, and that gives you a sense of the trust Americans place in their system.)

I was an undergraduate during the time the U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I remember discussing whether “Western-style democracy” could take root in those places, and what would make this more – or less – likely. Almost invariably, arguments about a country’s prior experience of democracy would come up, with the implication that nations with a history of democracy are more amenable to introducing and upholding the institutional changes necessary for democracy to flourish. 

I always thought this line of argument was short-sighted. Democracy – or, rather, the democratic/liberal model – only truly began to take root in Europe following centuries of authoritarianism. The last two and half centuries have profoundly changed the way in which Western societies function. Without retracing the complex and rich history of Western political thought, the Enlightenment, and what Nietzsche called the “death of God“, had a lot to do with shaping the intellectual and political framework for monumental changes to occur in Western societies. 

The transformation of the West from authoritarian, dogmatic, stratified societies to what we have today took place over long stretches of time. Indeed, it takes decades, if not centuries, for profound changes like the ones experienced by countries such as France, Germany, the UK or the U.S. to take root. Which is why, when it comes to development and democratization, we have to take the long view and recognize that while it is possible for nations and countries to experience and sustain systemic political, economic and social transformations – as exemplified by the evolution of Western societies over the last 250 years – these processes take time. 

In the age of globalization, where expectations of instant gratification (and of instant everything) are the norm, it is easy to become cynical about our ability to affect change and make a difference in the world’s less privileged places. For those working in international development/aid/human rights, it can be particularly disconcerting. The changes which are widely recognized as necessary (for example, the empowerment of women worldwide) cannot – and will not – happen overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars we throw at the problem. It can be very disconcerting for people in this field to spend years working on a project that depends on fickle funding cycles, while they themselves dependent on whether the project or initiative actually delivers quantifiable, measurable results. 

While I strongly believe that monitoring and evaluation is absolutely critical for ensuring accountability, there are often externalities created by a project that cannot be captured in a convenient Excel spreadsheet. While in recent years there have been more and more attempts at measuring social impact at the Bottom of the Pyramid, it is very hard to estimate the long term benefits (or negative impacts) of work that seeks to induce change. Ultimately, we are only able to measure incremental changes in development. The very notion of development rests on the assumption that there is a linear path to follow, from underdeveloped (or LDC, least developed countries), to developing (or middle income countries) to developed (or rich, industrialized nations).

Considering how long it took for Western societies to evolve, we should have a more humble approach to this – clearly, no one, not even Bill Gates and his billions, can create immediate, systemic change overnight. This isn’t to say that we should therefore be despondent and that efforts aimed at change are meaningless. Rather, I’m inviting readers – particularly the more cynical, jaded ones – to mull over the fact that initiatives aimed at change can (and most likely will) take generations to succeed. And that there is value even in very small, marginal changes. It is precisely these efforts that, over time, create the conditions necessary for social, political and economic evolution (revolution?) to occur. We needn’t be impatient, but we should be humble and acknowledge that initiatives carried out today may not have an immediate, game-changing impact. 

For the past half century or so, and through various channels, the democratic/liberal model has been pushed upon the parts of the world which have yet to adopt it. In the early 1990s, Western leaders seem to have all read and integrated the lessons from Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History“, in which he writes that the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War signaled the victory of the liberal democratic model. The so-called Washington Consensus led the Bretton Woods institutions and Western aid donors to push the developing world to adopt politicies that create the environment necessary for unfettered progress: lower barriers to trade, privatize industry and an insistence on macro-economic stability – all at any cost.

Today this one-size-fits-all approach to development has all but been rejected. What’s interesting about the failed Washington Consensus is that it makes quite clear that a country’s political and economic model cannot be forced or expected to change through policy prescriptions, however comprehensive and far reaching they may be.

2 thoughts on “Change (ing the world)?

  1. Only on 2nd paragraph but lovin the fresh new blog. Appreciatin wordpress with the “snap” preview on links, back on blogspot you had to CLICK AND WAIT! How did we live like that?

    Penelope MC is added to my reader (duh). Still thinking that you may need to upgrade to snazzier name…

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