Boring can be good

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Two retired businessmen came to see me yesterday, one of whom I had met in the early 1990s during the days when business leaders were getting involved to bring about political change via something called the Consultative Business Movement (CBM). Filled with ideas and enthusiasm as is common in entrepreneurs, all they want is to find ways of making development happen. They can see the persistence of poverty, unemployment and conflict despite 15 years of democratic governance, and realise that something more is needed than just expecting the state to delivery. As one of them put it, “I have realised capitalism creates poverty.” It was then that I was struck by the thought that Zuma’s State of the Nation address really was a key turning point: the signal was that we have entered a dismally boring period. Expect nothing exciting if you are interested in development. Yes, unlike the Mbeki era we might actually get some innovative economic thinking going if Ministers Davies and Patel can trump the dead hand of the Minister of Finance (who seems wedded to the old formulae for financial stabilisation at the expense of economic innovation). But no, there is nothing that suggests that government has found a way of cracking the development imbriolios that are, at root, not just economic problems. Following Amartya Sen, poverty does not disappear by throwing money at it – poverty depends on building the capabilities that poor people need to take advantage of the development process. Although he had in mind individual capabilities, we can extend this idea to include the equally important collective capabilities of communities to get their acts together. In this regard, the state may indeed be rather useless. It will have to enter into partnerships with CBOs, NGOs, social movements, social entrepreneurs and businesses that have the skills sets to work at this micro-level where everything depends on the commitments and energy of a small group of local leaders and how they connect into networks that result in the mobilisation of resources for development. My two visitors understand this, and they have the skills set to assist local projects to find ways of going to scale and making impacts. So if going boring means that a whole bunch of people start saying we better figure this all out for ourselves and once we have bring the state in to contribute where it can, then maybe boring really is going to be good thing. To twist John Lennon’s famous phrase: life will become interesting while the state does other things. Thanks, President Zuma, for making this clear.