Of branches, trunks and the wind.
Monday, 11th May 20
An Afghan was shot dead recently in Kabul. Hardly news, you will say, with so many locals killed since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan. True, you will have some difficulty in quoting precise figures – official US and Nato sources rarely provide public estimates of Afghan military and civilian casualties – but if you do your homework right, you will eventually come up with a conservative estimate of around 7,500 as at January 2009. So what’s new about the first sentence of this column?
Nothing really except that this particular Afghan, a high official of his country’s economic development agency, was following a specialist postgraduate course at a UK university I teach at. He was, as a matter of fact, just about to start on my own module. When I was first told that we were going to have a number of students from the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, I was impressed. Here was a bunch of guys determined to promote job creation – because ultimately that is the name of the game – in, literally, a hell of a place.
And they were – they are – determined to make the best possible job of it. AISA, in fact, won the world’s second best investment promotion agency award at the 2008 World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies annual conference last year. The award, jointly given by WAIPA and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, recognised AISA’s extraordinary achievement in the mere five years since it was set up.
Colleagues in the foreign direct investment promotion world confirmed to me how pro-active, focused and – in spite of all odds – enthusiastic AISA executives are. They go about their difficult job without the braggadocio typical of colleagues in other infinitely wealthier and more stable countries. These guys – who literally have to deliver under fire – have built a reputation as a source of credible information about their country. Unlike their colleagues in luckier countries they cannot blame other state agencies for not delivering on their promises… because AISA itself is ultimately responsible for delivering what it promises in terms of infrastructure and procedures. We have a lot to learn from them.
My thoughts went to my Afghan students when I drove past posters showing the candidates of a major political party for the European Parliament elections assuring us that if we send them to Brussels and Strasburg they will “bring more work”. Oh, is that how it’s done? Is that how productive jobs are created? What a load of putrefying fish-and-chips from yesteryear! Whoever says anything like that, now or in the future, blue, red, green or black, either does not know what they are on about or – if they do – they’re shamelessly lying through their teeth.
Job creation in today’s world has to do with ensuring the international competitiveness and the micro-economic fundamentals of firms operating in one’s country. It’s got to do with not doing whatever erodes their competitiveness. It’s got to do with getting off your backside and going out there to attract foreign direct investment that really contributes to the country’s development; to development that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. You do this by making distinctions.
The essentially euphemistic expression “real estate development”, for example, does not necessarily imply economic development. Above all, you do these things on the ground and from the ground. This ground.
Suggesting that “work” will come from the European Commission is an attempt to deflect attention from the work that is not being created in Malta. This is not to say that our MEPs cannot contribute to their country’s economic development by speaking for directives and regulations that facilitate it and against those that do not. It means that ultimately it is us Maltese who have to work hard to create work for ourselves. To suggest otherwise, as that poster does, is to encourage the traditional delusion that our future depends on hand-outs from foreign states.
In our circumstances, in today’s world, economic development depends on our ability to compete in international markets. This is what our politicians have to focus on when they speak about work. Let’s by all means send our best possible representatives to the European Parliament but let’s not pretend that they will do there what we must do for ourselves here. Unfortunately, as the Maltese proverb goes, “Skond iz-zokk il-fergħa” (old habits die hard and are “inherited”). The poster referred to indicates that old Maltese political habits do not die easily.
An Afghan proverb reminds us that a “tree does not move unless there is wind.” Allow me to stretch its meaning. There are robust signals that the bad habit, deeply ingrained in traditional Maltese political rhetoric, of exploiting the ignorance and prejudices of significant chunks of the electorate, is beginning to give diminishing political returns.
A breeze may be felt that may well build up to a wind of change. When it does, the weaker branches – those that rely on old bad habits – will crack and fall.