Why should a country plan?

2012-01-28 14:28

The launch of the National Planning Commission’s draft National Development Plan has provoked a great deal of discussion about the value of long-term planning.

Not so long ago national planning, in particular, had a bad name. It was associated with top-down, overly bureaucratic and overly technocratic approaches to government.

The most extreme form of national planning was conducted by Gosplan, the Soviet Union’s State Planning Committee, which supervised the command economy in almost excruciating detail.

In Western countries, planning was mainly spatial – referred to in the UK, for example, as Town and Country Planning. Even in these contexts, there was a high level of prescription and detail, with the most common form of spatial plan being the Master Plan.

Planning has come a long way since then and is now widely accepted as playing an important role in the success of many countries. There are still two broad traditions of national-level planning.

First, there are the five-year economic plans prepared mainly by state planning authorities in East and South Asia, including China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
These plans no longer provide the level of prescriptive detail they did in the past, but are focused more on establishing the principles and objectives for development, and on specifying targets.

China, especially, has been hugely successful in using the targets spelt out in each planning cycle to drive the transformation of its economy. Currently, China’s 12th Five-Year Plan is seeking to reorient the national economy towards the domestic market while building a resource-saving society.

India has an established National Planning Commission, which produces carefully considered plans, although it is still criticised for an overly bureaucratic process.

Malaysia has a particularly innovative approach to national planning, which it is using to achieve its overarching objective of transforming the country into a high-income nation.
In Western Europe there has been a resurgence of planning over the past two decades.

Instead of Master Plans, there are Spatial Frameworks, which set the broad direction of development and indicate what is required to achieve the desired outcomes.

Africa has a hybrid of planning systems, which draw on traditions from the West and the East.

In the recent past, there have been successes and failures with national plans. Successful plans have provided a consistent long-term direction for the otherwise disjointed decisions and actions of multiple players in government and non-government sectors.

They have provided greater policy stability, reduced risks in governance, allowed for sensible policy trade-offs to be made and generally promoted better decision-making across the board.

They have, for example, enabled countries to make the investment decisions that require long lead times – for example, to ensure long-term energy and water security, and to invest in the human skills needed for sustainable economic growth.

What makes for a successful plan? One writer suggested that “a good plan is one that stakeholders find sufficiently reliable for use as the basis for making decisions”.

It is a plan that generates confidence because it is based on sound research and has been thoroughly tested through wide engagement with experts and stakeholders.

There are other related requirements for a good plan. A good plan, for example, is one that is developed through a collaborative and participatory process rather than by so-called experts in the proverbial smoky back room.

It is a plan that deepens democracy by involving as many people as possible rather than undermining democracy by making government even more technocratic.

A good plan is one that is implementable. A plan can be elegantly crafted but poorly aligned with resource availability and administrative capacity.

A plan must, however, not be entirely constrained by the limitations of the present. It must show how improving capabilities can lead more quickly to desired futures.

Chapter Seven of Malaysia’s Plan, for example, has the broad goal of “Transforming Government to Transform Malaysia”. South Africa’s draft National Development Plan argues that implementation required both a capable state and an active citizenry working collaboratively towards agreed objectives.

A good plan is sufficiently robust to provide long-term direction, notwithstanding short-term pressures, conflicts and political exigencies. But it must also have flexibility. It must be adaptable to changing contexts.

Plans can be wrong and it is arguably better to have no plan than a bad plan. The challenge is to ensure that we have a good plan for South Africa. The release of the draft National Development Plan is an enormously important opportunity for South Africans.

It is too important to rely on the deliberation and expertise of the members of the National Planning Commission. To produce a good plan requires South Africans across all social groups and sectors to engage in discussion, dialogue and debate.

Planning is primarily a social and political process of identifying common priorities and a realistic path to achieving those objectives. This means focusing attention on what we, as a society, value most, and then developing the strategies and instruments to realise our dreams.

If we do this, we may be able to rise above the petty squabbles that are threatening to derail the hopes of post-apartheid South Africa.

» ?Harrison writes in his capacity as a commissioner of the National Planning Commission

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