Policy Alternation for Development

Questionable answers

Anthony Judge

The many initiatives in response to the global problematique are in most cases stimulated by a need to determine guidelines for action. The question to which an answer is sought at all levels is some variant of "what can be usefully done?"

The answers to this question have taken a range of well-known forms which include the following:

  • policy recommendations to appropriate institutions,
  • publication and distribution of research conclusions to academic communities,
  • public information programme to adapt and disseminate conclusions,
  • formulation of an educational programme for schools and universities,
  • implementation of a community dialogue programme in the light of the conclusion,
  • implementation of a field programme acting directly on societal problems,
  • design of new organisations and institutions capable of responding more adequately to the societal condition,
  • elaboration and dissemination of visions of alternatives and future action modes,
  • design of a new information system to ensure more effective interaction concerning materials related to the subject matter and conclusions,
  • organisation of (a series of) meetings on the subject matter and conclusions,
  • proposals for further research on the subject matter and conclusions, whether involving practical applications or fundamental re-assessment of methodology,
  • elaboration of innovative audio-visual presentations of the nature of the problem and the action possibilities,
  • elaboration and dissemination of a new set of values through which consensus can be obtained,
  • elaboration and dissemination of a declaration concerning action to be taken,
  • elaboration of a multilateral treaty concerning action to be taken,
  • elaboration of an interaction process whereby the problematique can be approached in a new light.
These are all "classical" options to ensure an integrated response to any societal condition. They have been extensively applied since the origin of the International Development Decades and in response to every type of problem, including: energy, population, food, refugees, discrimination, health, youth, drugs or environment. It is fair to conclude that these answers have been successful to the extent that the problem was either a narrow technical one involving little controversy (e.g. smallpox) or did not call for immediate action (e.g. creating environmental awareness). The answers have however been of limited effectiveness in containing the problematique in its essential globality. The point has been reached at which predictions by the highest authority of the cumulative consequences of inaction are met with increasing indifference and a sense of helplessness.

It is possible to take any one of such answers and show why it is inadequate as a response and why in fact it may merely aggravate or displace the problem. This too is increasingly recognised. And yet such answers continue to be formulated in desperation because of the need to respond to constituencies who want to believe that something effective is being done which will alleviate the problem and avert disaster. Protests that such answers have proven to be of limited effectiveness in the past, meet with responses of the tape:

  • "these things take time"
  • "we must do what we can"
  • "we must concentrate on what we can handle effectively"
  • "it is participation in the process which is significant, not the results"
It is possible to move beyond the uni-modal answer and recognize that because each form of action has both strengths and weaknesses, the key to a more effectively multi-modal answer lies in finding how to interrelate the various uni-modal answers so that they correct for each others weaknesses and restrain each others excesses. There are some efforts in this direction but they run up against another constraint, namely whether integrated action of any type is feasible at this time. Consider the variants implied by the theme of the 1980 Global Futures Conference "thinking globally/acting locally":
  • thinking globally/acting globally (e.g. UN Action Plan)
  • thinking globally/acting locally (e.g. Local plan within agreed world model)
  • thinking locally/acting locally (e.g. Local plans unrelated by any world model)
  • thinking locally/acting globally (e.g. Global actions in terms of local concerns)
  • no action - laissez faire (e.g. Proliferation of answers competing for limited resources).
What then is the nature of the answer that would prove appropriate? What are its "properties"? What would be the response to the formulation of such an answer? Are there more fruitful ways of formulating such an answer? The clarification of the significance of these questions is the purpose of this paper. Assumptions such as the following are too easily made:
  • the appropriate answer can be made in the same conceptual framework or "language" as the question "what can be usefully done?"
  • the answer will not challenge the status and self-image of the questioner or potential "doer".
  • the answer can be rendered in a comprehensible form to the questioners or to those from whom they have received their mandate.
  • the answer would simply involve a reshuffling of existing organisational resources and priorities, but would not imply any radical transformation of their status and mode of working. (It might well be interpreted by many to take the form of the N+lth UN World Action Plan and therefore to conform to standard UN administrative procedures.)
  • the answer would not engender valid opposition and resistance, except by reactionary segments of society whose views are irrelevant,
  • the promulgation of the kind of answer sought would not deprive the future period (during which it is implemented) of the ability to initiate alternative responses.
  • the answer cannot be conceived as competing with other answers, which if they are advanced must necessarily be subsumed, opposed, or preferably suppressed.
  • the psychological and institutional systems could adjust satisfactorily to the complete elimination of the problematique by the ideal answer.
Assumptions such as these result from thinking similar to that associated with modern medicine. Illnesses are diagnosed and then surgery and/or a course of treatment is recommended based on specific drugs and diet. It is assumed that if the world problematique could be accurately "diagnosed" and mapped, malignant growth could be excised and appropriate "pills" could be designed and "prescribed". Some further treatment may also be advocated in the form of various therapies or re-educational exercises, with "stimulants", "tranquilizers" and "vitamins" as necessary. This "pill psychology" approach takes no account of the questionable role of medicine in society, as explored by Illitch (3) and Attali (4). It does not take into account issues analogous to those raised by such currently debated phenomena as conflict between specialists, malpractice, iatrogenic diseases, placebo effects, commercialisation and institutionalization of medicine, drug cost as a perceived indicator of remedial power, folk medicine, euthanasia, hospital vs home environment, and problems of psychosomatic origin.

The approach to providing a "GPID answer" must therefore be examined very carefully. Advocating a particular model or course of action is tantamount to advocating a particular type of pill. It raises the question of how this might conflict with treatment advocated by other "health centers" from which the "patient" is seeking advice. On the other hand, presenting a range of conflicting opinions by eminent specialists on possible alternative courses of treatment would be of little value to the patient, as would recommendations for remedies for an aspect of the problem (a "micro-answer"). And pointing to directions for "further research" would be simply abandoning the patient to his own resources for the meantime. In each case, it is not the treatment which is necessarily the main problem, but rather the framework within which the patient's relationship to the possible treatments is defined. The question is therefore whether this situation can be seen in a new light and whether a new kind of response can be made to the question "what can be usefully done?".