Planning body lacks human touch

2011-07-02 09:58

The National Planning Commission’s (NPC) recently released diagnostic report has been received with mixed reviews.

Its critics argue that it has revealed nothing new, at a huge cost to the fiscus.

Its supporters argue that you cannot possibly solve a problem without the proper diagnosis.But both arguments miss two more fundamental problems: the first is political and the second epistemological.

On the political front, in other countries, national planning has worked only when it is integrated into the policy-making processes of ­government.

Thus, to understand the potential effectiveness of any planning initiative, one has to grasp its political ­influence.

National planning worked in France because that country has a centuries-old etatist (state-centric) culture that permeates the bureaucracy right through to the local level.Planning did not hold in Britain­ because of that country’s long-standing belief in the “invisible hand” of the market.

Germany succeeded because of the ability of big business – particularly banks – to get government, business and labour to read from the same page.

The so-called Asian tigers, particularly Taiwan and South Korea, succeeded under geopolitical protection from the US, giving them a strategic position they used to build long-term industrial capacity.

National planning in India took place within the context of a national effort to create self-sufficiency in food, build small industries and develop information technologies.

President FD Roosevelt established a planning function in the US to strengthen the political and technical capacity of his office – an objective that was successfully thwarted by a coalition of bureaucrats, business and Congress.

Ironically, it took president Richard Nixon, under the influence of Harvard academic Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for the US to return to planning.But that period ended with Nixon’s fall, never to be resumed until some furtive moves in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.

But even then, planning was seen as a technocratic exercise.

The second problem with the commission is simply the knowledge­ assumptions that inform its approach to planning. With roots in Enlightenment emphasis on scientific knowledge, planning was for a long time dominated by engineers, economists and technocrats of various hues.

In his seminal work on national planning commissions, Andrew Shonfield noted: “Planning, if it is to be effective, must be steadily related to the day-to-day working of government. This is the truth which the French grasped most clearly right from the start.”

This was clearly not the case with our commission as, from the onset, it was mired in political contestation.

The leftists in the alliance successfully clipped Planning Minister Trevor Manuel’s wings.

As a result, the commission comes across as a “toy telephone” and Manuel as its lame-duck leader. The NPC did not get a single mention in the president’s state of the nation address earlier this year.

One of the consequences of the commission’s political marginalisation has been the epistemological oddity of separating the commission from implementing policy – it is merely an advisory body.

But as Donald Schon argued in Beyond the Stable State, the separation of planning from policy implementation is based on the outdated separation of central government as the repository of knowledge and the rest of society as the imbibers of such knowledge.

It is also based on the mistaken assumption that scientific and technical knowledge makes for reliable prediction of the future possible.

Leading global leading historian Eric Hobsbawm mocked the fallacy of this approach by saying: “Modern social science, policy making and planning have pursued a model of scientism and technical manipulation which systematically, and deliberately, ­neglects human, and above all, historical experience.”

To wit, if it is to be effective, the NPC would require more political clout than it currently enjoys.

Epistemologically, it would have to adopt a more social approach to national planning.

Planning for a society characterised by deep political, economic, cultural and social divides will take much more than a part-time body composed of academic and business leaders.

The question is not whether we have the ability to generate technical solutions, but whether the people for whom those solutions are meant are ready and willing to take them up.

» Mangcu is executive chairperson of the ­Platform for Public Deliberation 

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