Thursday, September 16, 2010

Neither of Either

Teach a man to fish rather than give him fish. That's the kind of principle I use regularly when I drive up to a red traffic light and wave away the beggar that rocks up to my window with his grubby hands and filthy attire. The light turns green, I engage the accelerator and pull away. I do neither of either.

I want to look briefly today at a legitimate concern raised at conservatives, of which I am one. It seems that every time some kind of crisis occurs in the world, small or large, the liberals want to drive in some new legislation, some new safety by-law or some new disaster relief fund. Whenever a new flood occurs in Bangladesh, there are massive cries for emergency funds, without ever questioning why the Bangladeshis seem to never learn from their experiences. The conservative counter to the constant band-aid approach of the liberals is to use catch-phrases like the one I alluded to earlier.

The question is: do the conservatives really stick to their suggestion of teaching a man to fish instead of giving him fish? Or do they simply do neither of either? As an example, instead of dishing out millions in aid to Bangladeshi flood victims, is there a group of strategic thinkers drawing up plans to avert future flood disasters, and then presenting these in an aggressive "sort it out now" fashion to the Bangladeshi authorities? Or do the detractors simply carry on living their comfortable Western lifestyles, safe in the knowledge that their cute catch-phrase alleviated them of responsibility?

Let's take another look at the culture of education. In Western society, for example, it is considered standard duty for parents to take responsibility of their children up to about 18 years of age. When a child wanders into the road and gets hit by a car, it's not the child who is blamed, but the parent. The child grows up to follow the example set by the parents, and in turn takes care of their offspring. There's a cycle that continues here.

Now you might argue that the nurturing behaviour of a parent is purely instinctual and received genetically at birth. I'm not convinced. Either way, why am I bringing this up? Well, by the same logical deduction, you might want to reason that the Bangladeshis should genetically have been born to avert the consequences of their future disasters. If they keep dying from the same floods and don't learn from their experiences, whose fault is it? It's a very interesting point. Let me ask the harsh question because it has to be asked: are they stupid?

Perhaps some roleplayers in the Bangladeshi administration are stupid. There are enough stupid administrators in Western bureaucracies not to discount an equivalent in Bangladesh, but there are more issues here. For one, spiritual bondage, such as the spirit of gaya that teaches reverence for a mother earth, instead of the dominion which God gave as a specific instruction to Adam and Eve. Look for example at the Dutch approach to dealing with low-lying land - that's taking dominion of the land. Secondly, I pull back to my earlier point that there is a cycle of education that needs to start turning in a society. At some stage, parents take on a culture of problem solving, and children adopt that culture and perpetrate it themselves.

When does that cycle kick off? In my mind many of the disaster recovery programs don't help in this regard, because they seem to prevent the benefactors from being forced to review their situation. Why bother to redress your situation when help from the West is on its way? Now I'm not suggesting that we never help, but as the West we need to recognise when we're helping and when we're keeping the needy locked in a cycle. I remember social workers instructing Cape Town residents not to give money to the beggars on the streets, because you keep them trapped. It's true - desparation is so often the first step towards the cure.

While you administer sufficient help, there needs to be a long-term focus on the bigger problem, and more than that, a culture of medium and long term problem solving. There is a cycle of education, and it is taught as much as inherited.

But are we doing that? If we have been given knowledge and problem-solving knowledge by our parents and our teachers, do we pass it on? Do we look at the problems, use cute catch-phrases and then get back to the golf course or the pub? Do we acknowledge that one solution is better than the other, but then still do neither of either?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Strikes: Who Is To Blame?

On a typical sunny South African day, a group of citizens don bright coloured clothing with logos and banners in hand and go enjoy some song and dance on the streets of their city. What brings them there and is it work or play? What is the driving factor? Is it a sense of the collective achieving something or is it a desperation with their personal circumstance that drives them here as something of a last chance saloon? Is it a patriotic duty or a distinctively selfish pursuit?

Honestly, I can't say. Coming from my white Western background, the whole idea of marching down the street, burning with anger like that is not part of my culture. In fact, I don't like it at all. I don't like the idea of people mouthing off about what the world owes them and how their state of victimisation requires the world to level up the scores without the victims playing a significant part in their own recover. And yes, whites can be equally guilty in this regard.

Let me explain briefly where my thinking comes from. A big part of Christianity is personal responsibility for your own decisions. Despite being put under grievous personal circumstances, each person has ownership of the choices they make within those circumstances. It's this kind of thinking that drives the free market system against which these strikers are protesting.

Let me explain. When you begin training to be a teacher, do you do it because the paycheque will guarantee a Mercedes Benz and bi-annual holiday to Hawaii and Maldives? Of course not. You know that, I know that. If you want those luxuries, you know you'll need to be a doctor, a CEO, a successful enterpreneur or a Premiership footballer. If you say it's not fair that teachers don't get paid the same as doctors, then you're saying that a 5th division footballer should get paid the same as Lionel Messi. That's absurd. By logical deduction, if you believe the former, you must believe the latter, to the cent.

The key is incentive. If you're getting paid R20,000 per month as a street sweeper, why would you put yourself through 7 years of study and exams to become a dentist and smell people's breath the whole day? If teacher's salaries are too low and teachers are being lost to other sectors of the industry, it leads to parents paying higher school fees in order to guarantee a good education, thus re-balancing the game. This is exactly what is happening with private education, and there's no significant reason why the same principle can't work for all.

So how did we get here and who's fault is it? It's the ANC's fault! I accept that the government are resisting many of the wage demands and I give them credit for it. In addition, I recognise that strikes are not necessarily a government initiative (is Cosatu government?), and it would appear that this is a case of the people against the government. However, I believe that this kind of militant strike action is the ANC's fault on two parts.

Firstly, the ANC have continuously made unrealistic promises. The blacks could have looked at white lifestyles in 1994 and imagined that driving a BMW is a normal life they would have lived had they not been denied by apartheid. The ANC rocked up promising housing, services and jobs as though it was normally a government duty to provide these and not the fruit of personal endeavour. With each new election we have the ANC repeating their service delivery pledges, giving people fish and not teaching them to fish, as the saying goes (and in fact giving them neither much of the time).

Secondly, the ANC are particularly proud of their "struggle" past, especially as the spirit of that struggle was not a passive activism in the Gandhi mould, but a militant one enshrined by events like June 16 and Andrew Zondo's supermarket bombing. What you plant is what you sow, and here we see the fruit. Union leaders might distance themselves from stories of rioting, property distruction and shambock-wielding activists, but these fringes are the fruit of the organisations' group-think.

You could counter-argue that the ANC is the product of the cultures of the voters, who are now the strikers. That would be a point worth considering and worth debate. In other words, you would be arguing that the ANC is simply a front for the strikers themselves, dissatisfied with their own state of affairs. Basically the voters created a party to create a perfect world for them, and then became angry when the perfect world continues to elude them. Once again, unrealistic expectations.

Is there a place in the world for strikes? I would say so. The Bible does warn in several places about the wages of workers and about the rights of the poor and I struggle to see how you can get redress without some form of strong-handedness. The trouble is that the current strike action is chasing a financial platform that isn't warranted. The economy and tax base cannot carry the claims of the strikers, and what they are asking requires sacrifice of other services or the broadening of the tax base, which will reduce incentive for investment and contribute to further job loss.

Yes, my approach is hard-line. I believe that the spirit of ubuntu does not always serve the people that it tolerates. Genuine progress does require ubuntu, but in a sense where each pulls their weight to improve the situation, not in demands on a government to cure the victim's problems.

The solution is not increased wages and better workplace legislation. The solution lies in the strikers recognising that their lifestyle comfort depends on their personal endeavours. If they want to be paid more, they need to study harder, work harder, change jobs, start their own businesses or be more intelligent with how they spend their money. My mom is a teacher, and she's been doing fine on her paycheque, and that's a product of making quality personal choices.

DISCLAIMER: This blog serves as a commentary and the views presented are not necessary the official views of the ACDP. For official statements and contact details, visit: