Top-Down Approaches Hit The Poorest First and Worst

The cost of lockdowns, poor energy policy and new sustainability initiatives are conspiring to hit the poorest first and worst.

I’ve just got back from Sri Lanka, a country that has had a lot to contend with since I was last there in 2017.

In 2019 a series of bombs ripped through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds. Tourism collapsed overnight. One year later and the pandemic hit and the world went crazy – with a series of lockdowns causing the bottom to drop out of the travel industry.

Not many tears are shed when the travel industry suffers, particularly by the more extreme climate activists. What people forget is that many countries and communities depend on tourism. Revenues in Sri Lanka were estimated to have fallen to by $2.5 billion a year during the lockdowns, relative chump change to an economy like the UK, but pivotal to some countries.

And then, with the pandemic finally over the Sri Lankan Government officially declared the worst economic crisis in the country in 73 years.

So far this year the country has cancelled school exams for millions of students after running out of printing paper, hospitals are stopping surgery and as I started writing this post the shops over the road from us were contending with 13-hour electricity blackouts.

As the basics slip out of reach (the header photo was taken by me of a queue for kerosene) and even school buses can’t afford to run, Sri Lanka sits on a precipice.

A badly managed economy hasn’t been helped by the introduction of some ill-thought out initiatives.

In 2019 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa unveiled his grand vision for Sri Lanka: it would embrace sustainable food production and become a world leader in fully organic farming.

Problem was, not many of these new food production techniques had been fully tested. The ban on pesticides led to immediate protests by the farmers who complained about the lack of preparation to switch to an organic farming mode at such short notice. The general public became angry due to food inflation caused by the low yields. Though the policy has been reversed (sustainability rightly goes out the window when people can’t feed their kids) it’s too late, the effect of the ban will reduce the rice harvest in 2022 by an unprecedented 50%.

As much of the world struggles with an energy crisis there are lessons for many of us here. Lessons of self serving leaders creating policies completely out of touch with the requirements of normal folk. Lessons of people becoming obsessed with switching to new and unproven solutions that are not fully tested or evaluated.

Policies rarely succeed or fail on their own merits; rather their progress is dependent upon the process of implementation as well as their timing.

Across the world we now face an energy crisis at the exact same time as we should be addressing a climate crisis. This is a failure of planning and an illustration of the lack of strategic foresight that exists in much of our leadership.

Innovation rarely happens in one great leap, but rather in a series of incremental steps. The first solution is rarely the perfect one.

More forward thinking economies will often accept that rather than resist what may be an imperfect step-change solution. For example, in the United States fracking is seen as an innovation, but in the UK is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. As Matt Ridley has written our instinct is often to resist innovation, as with coffee, margarine, GM crops and fracking, though it’s a retrograde step.

The successful introduction of behaviour change has to be carefully timed.

How can you convince people to upgrade their heating systems at the exact same time as their fuel bills soar out of reach?

How is it a good idea to introduce a ban on buy one get one free offers on cheap food just as as the cost of living crisis peaks?

A lot of these sort of policies smack of the work of middle class think tank types who have little grounding in the world of the poor or working class. This is nothing new. Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937, George Orwell  laid bare Britain’s north-south divide. This is a passage from Chapter 5, and if you exchange ‘since the war’ for ‘since the pandemic’ and adjust the prices for inflation this could be written in 2022.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of
underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays
almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs
as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can
get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but
you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even
‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can
wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there
is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of
starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call
it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. 

There’s a reason that many Government’s introduce policies banning BOGOF offers, mandating calorie counts on menus, phasing out cheap fuel sources or introducing taxes on sugar or alcohol. They look good and it is a lot easier to do those things than tackle the big elephant in the room. Poverty.

Whether in Sri Lanka or in the UK it would be an interesting social experiment if the people most economically disadvantaged by new policy measures were involved at the outset in the design of them.

But I guess that would be a bit too radical.

Author: Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: