I used to work in the aid business. For about ten years. I loved it for most of that time. But I gradually lost faith with the basic premise; that aid and charity are anything like solutions to all the problems the big aid agencies say they want to solve: entrenched poverty, runaway climate change and exploding inequality, specifically.
Foreign aid is charity and charity is fine, as a palliative response to immediate suffering. It’s riddled with nasty moral overtones (quick test: ask yourself if you want to live on charity, see how it makes you feel) that we need to work out of it, but that’s a work I think is in progress. More importantly, it’s just a million miles away from being a lasting solution to anything. It’s altogether too small. The second we see it masquerading as a solution — when, for example, we see foreign aid being offered up as an adequate response to poverty — we should cry foul.
So I left the aid business in 2012 and helped start a new organisation in the hope that with some time and exploration, I might find my way to ideas and agendas that deserved the rhetoric of being about solutions.
Since then, I’ve been on an incredible journey through all sorts of weird and wonderful knowledge. I’ve delved into, among other things, the cognitive sciences, complexity and systems science, sociology, anthropology, different faith traditions and wisdom cultures, and hundreds if not thousands of more traditional policy and political opinions.
There are, literally, countless great ideas and insights out there. Knowledge isn’t the problem. Sometimes processing such vast quantities of it is, for sure, but when you stand far enough back, when you strip away the sound & fury of the passionate debates about this policy fix or that, this data set or that, it turns out there’s actually a very simple reason we haven’t fixed these problems. And, for the time being, can’t.
We’re not trying to.
Seriously. We’re actually, collectively, not trying to.
It might help at this point to take the “we” out of this. I use it at all because it’s true by one important measure; i.e. the global systems of power and money, production and consumption, communication and connection we have are all human creations, so let’s not pretend humanity isn’t ultimately culpable.
But no single human, or even generation of humans, is fully culpable. We’re all part of something far bigger, far longer lasting than that. We’re all part of an unfolding mother-system of infinite complexity.
The human parts of this system — I’m thinking particularly now of the political economy — has design features. They have evolved over centuries and can be hard to define, let alone see from the individual vantage point. But they’re there. And one, above all others, guides the rest: growth. Specifically, material growth. Even more specifically, more money.
That’s what our system cares about more than anything else. That’s what it’s designed — you could say programmed — to deliver. That’s the Prime Directive.
Beneath that, it can care about everything else. And there’s a lot of caring to go around, which is why we have some great NGOs and charities, corporate CSR programmes, the United National Development Goals, welfare systems etc. But they are all sub-objectives served by second tier systems. In other words, as long as there is material growth, we can turn our attention to other things. Like each other. Like the environment. Like democracy. Like love. But only once we have material growth sorted and provided they don’t impinge on it. And material growth takes an enormous amount of time and attention, especially when we believe only through competition will we each receive our fair due.
Now, material growth isn’t inherently bad. Money isn’t evil. Its just an idea. The thing it, it’s not the same idea as wellbeing. It’s not environmental stability. It’s not justice. It’s not equity, let alone equality. It’s not love. It can be a huge contributor to many of those things — and a huge threat to others — but at the most basic level, it is not them. It isn’t even, for the most part, a good proxy.
The machinery, the system, the collective will as expressed by our power and governance structures, are trying, above all else, with all their ingenuity and might to give us, collectively, on aggregate, more material/money stuff. As they are programmed to do. It’s a superb system, for that.
You don’t get angry at a toaster for not making your cup of coffee in the morning, even if you want both for your breakfast. You use a machine designed for the job: a coffee maker (well, I do). So there’s a futility in being angry at the global political economy for not making a safe and secure world that supports the optimal flourishing of life. Right now, that’s not it’s job.
I think it should be. I think as long as it doesn’t try to deliver on this infinitely difficult task with all its — and our — ingenuity and passions, and treats it as the most important task — its Prime Directive — it can’t succeed. I know a lot of people share that view.
So the thing to do is focus on the design of the system; the operating principles. Nothing will really change until they change. We’ll just keep lurching from one self-induced by-product of the material-growth machine to another.
Step one: measure differently. Dethrone GDP (Gross Domestic Product — the measure of measures right now) and make other things count as much.
That might be the most important political fight there is.
Because: Program the system to try, and it will succeed.