The Tame and The Wicked

The Mauritian body politic will have at some stage to grapple with some “wicked” issues that many believe are fundamental to our future — By S. Callikan

 This question certainly could lead us from discussing apparent dualities deep into the realms of religiosity and spirituality around the meaning of existence on earth, which all human societies and civilisations have attempted to address. Professor Jordan Pedersen, with a clinical psychologist chair at Toronto, author of the renowned Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief and, since 2016, of a remarkable series of internet-diffused lectures on ancient and biblical beliefs, might have termed it the mediation between the world we know for certain and the world beyond those barriers of certainty, in other words, metaphysics.

Professor Yuval Noah Harari, with a doctorate from Oxford, a chair of World History in Jerusalem and who has made a stir with Sapiens, a brief history of Humankind, might attribute this quest for meaning to man’s unique penchant for “story-telling” as the indispensable societal glue and the uniquely distinguishing feature of humankind. Whether we share their views or not, they offer refreshing insights and perspectives on the human narrative and the wicked, the brutal or the murderous excesses it ingrained in all quarters of the globe. But neither the human narrative nor metaphysics are really what this reflective piece is about.

Tame challenges

From what we gather and in summary form, social planners and political scientists took to referring as “tame” issues, those problems which however complex in scope or magnitude, could ultimately be solved through the application of a known set of financial, sociological, engineering or architectural tools and processes. The building of a brand new international airport or its various extensions, however costly or time-consuming, for instance, would certainly qualify as reasonably “tame” proposals to socio-planners. The Sydney Harbour Bridge accomplished at great costs and human lives in the perilous endeavour and its adjoining Opera House are similar trade-mark “tame” challenges that have left a glamorous international imprint on the Sydney harbour topography.

Building signature features like the Eiffel Tower, or, more mundanely, railways, roads, motorways or bridges, building a properly designed tramway, are not the only examples of “tame” challenges. One dare say that introducing the Welfare State or free public education, or free transport for schoolchildren and the elderly, however stupendous the implementation task might have seemed when initially formulated by policy makers, could qualify as relatively “tame” social planning issues that could be adequately resolved by intelligent agencies and dedicated professionals. Similarly socio-economic planners might consider the export-zone industrialisation or the successor pillars of economy were relatively “tame” developmental issues when public-sector policy, planning and implementation capacities and the Mauritian population at large rose to the challenge of developing a platform for international and local investors that has withstood some decades.

Even the unfortunate saga of the cracks in the Valton-Ripailles part of the Terre Rouge-Verdun motorway, had the consultants, design engineers, construction agencies and supervisor arms of government executed their share of responsibility properly, should have been a “tame” problem. We are a land of volcanic origins, with renowned slopes and ground structures susceptible to “glissements de terrain” and other topographical factors which surely must be known to our local specialists and supervisors.

We can be surprised or befuddled that cracks appeared so soon after design and construction. Worse, it is only after three years and several commissioned consultancies, that we are at last perhaps to have an authoritative analysis and recommendations from a distinguished geo-technical specialist, Professor Magnan. Let us hope this announces the end of the saga. The beast is not intractable and should certainly be “tamed” at the earliest and without unduly calling on the public purse, if concerned agencies at fault are tasked to shoulder their fair share of the financial repair costs.

The wicked ones

This allows us to come to what social planners, perhaps irreverently and by opposition no doubt to “tame” problems, term as “wicked” problems, issues or challenges. Typically, these are far more daunting than their “tame” counterparts, not so much by their inherent complexity, their multi-disciplinary nature or their potential impact, as by their volatility and their often international nature, offering few avenues for standard methods and processes to be easily applicable at national levels. In other instances, the variety of lobbies and constituents, the complexity of the underlying issues, make a particular socio-economic challenge intractable leaving unsatisfactory compromises as the only palliative.

On an international front, terrorism and the handling of religious fundamentalism or occult terror-outfit financing by state actors is a flagship example of an intractable “wicked” problem that has no easy set of standard solutions and yet which must continue to be addressed vigorously across the globe. With the elimination of ISIS in its heartland, governments fear the infiltration of stable societies by those seeking hide-outs and camouflage elsewhere. Neither inflammatory Trump rhetoric nor more integrative policies in some European states can unfortunately safeguard from future atrocities by manipulated or brain-washed nihilists. Even at our sub-regional level, the Indian Ocean island nations will have to exercise constant greater vigilance with improved monitoring systems of the heightened risks.

If that is a vivid example of a “wicked” problem, one can add two further international challenges upon which we may have little effective sway, beyond what little can and should be achieved at our national level. The first is undoubtedly the intractable situation with regard to fossil fuel and the environment, encompassing availability and dependence on limited and diminishing world supplies, geo-strategic considerations as major powers prepare to jostle unabashedly for what’s left as reserves, long-term climate changes, global warming up of the atmosphere and the rise in ocean levels as vast swathes of polar ice-caps melt inexorably. As COP 21 and Trump’s dismissive stand on climate change illustrate, the problem is of staggering complexity and volatility. At our local level, we cannot afford to delay a serious forward scenario analysis and a multi-sectoral team effort at the planning of mitigating measures both for our environment, our beaches, our vulnerable coral reefs, our sun-and-sand tourist industry and our future development perspectives as an Ocean-state.

A second intractable “wicked” problem concerns the exploding rise in inequalities worldwide, a phenomenon which is attracting the attention of global development experts, even some of those who pushed hard for greater economic liberalisation and internationalisation of free-trade. As the global power-brokers meet in Davos this week, Oxfam has released some damning figures in its Report titled “An economy for the 99 percent” available on the internet. The stark statement Eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity…” may come as a shocker or a wake-up call and Oxfam does its usual job at a lengthy diagnostic analysis and sensitisation of global leaders.

“Across the world, people are being left behind. Their wages are stagnating yet corporate bosses take home million dollar bonuses; their health and education services are cut while corporations and the super-rich dodge their taxes; their voices are ignored as governments sing to the tune of big business and a wealthy elite.”

But few would dare a prognosis on how international institutions and countries work out of this intractably “wicked” challenge of worldwide inequality and the stupendous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few tycoons. At our local level, public policy planners have to remain concerned that inequality does not make such inroads that our social structures and the very fabric of our society become at risk. Inequality has been part of our heritage and since independence, we have had to live with economic development under conditions of historical legacy, intelligent lobbying, inter-linked business daebos or electoral campaign funding that have generated real issues of policy capture. Policy planners may not want this meta-stable distortion to be taken to such levels that a relatively “tame” issue turns into a “wicked” challenge.

One could certainly add electoral reform and the funding of political campaign as two other “wicked” challenges both of which offer at best the perspectives of moving from one unsatisfactory state to another. No overseas formulas or those of our local specialists can be expected to be fully satisfactory. Yet the Mauritian body politic will have at some stage to grapple with those “wicked” issues that many believe are fundamental to our future as the country celebrates its half-century of independence.


* Published in print edition on 26 January 2018

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