We all need to board the bus to development

2011-07-02 10:05

One of the warm-up exercises we sometimes do in the planning for development course that I run a couple of times a year at Wits University is to plan a class outing.

I tell the class where we are going and what we are going to do, and they have to work out the ­details of how to get there.The first time we do it on a strictly individual basis.

This can be amusing when students suggest that we fly to Durban to go to ­Emfuleni, the municipality 60km out of Joburg.

The next time, we do the exercise in large groups. One group is told that they are civil servants with a car allowance, and they all choose to drive down by themselves to boost their subsistence and travel claims.

Meanwhile, those who are part of the trade ­union delegation charter minibus taxis.

This exercise teaches some ­basic lessons about planning: first, it is really helpful to have a reasonably good idea of where you are going because, if you don’t, not only will you end up in the wrong place but you will have spent a lot of money getting there.

Next, working in groups is helpful. There will usually be someone with a good knowledge of where we are going and others who will have useful information about getting there.

Finally, though, it is important to recognise that different groups have different interests and, ­unless given the opportunity to cooperate, they will do things very differently.

That’s why, when we have a final discussion all together, we often choose to hire a bus for the trip, because it is more economical and ­because it creates opportunities to work and interact as we go.

Quite often, I feel that if we can just get those three messages across, we are half way to producing better planners.

What is left is the detail.

Are we really clear about where we want to get to? What are the options? What do they cost?

What must happen first? And can we achieve other goals along the way?

When I worked in Mozambique in the early years after independence, the planning system was run by East Germans who were not used to the constraints of a poor African country.

So we used to joke that if we needed a kilogram of four-inch nails, in our plan we would ask for two kilograms of six-inch nails to be sure we got what we wanted.

Many African countries in the first years of independence planned with too much optimism and not enough flexibility.

One of our case studies is the ­unfortunate history of Zambia which, in the 1970s, planned for significant industrialisation and infrastructure development to be paid for with the receipts of a booming copper industry.

Unfortunately, when the copper price collapsed, the spending continued.

As a ­result, Zambia was soon broke and spent more than a decade under the whip of the International Monetary Fund.

That teaches us that not only is it necessary to plan for what you hope will happen; but it is usually a good idea to identify the risks and uncertainties, to have a contingency plan to deal with them, and to monitor progress carefully to pick up problems sooner rather than later.

What do we conclude from this?

South Africa’s National Planning Commission (NPC) will only be successful if we apply some of these basic lessons.

The NPC will certainly continue to engage with a wide range of people and organisations to understand where we want to be development wise.There is also a great deal of technical work to be done if we are to properly understand the opportunities and constraints that we face and what options are really possible.

But we need to apply those same principles to our own work. So where do we, as the NPC, want to get to by the end of our five-year term?

Certainly, simply producing a document called a development plan will not be enough although it may mark a milestone on our road.

Perhaps the most important goal will be to get as many South Africans as possible in the same bus together, knowing (and agreeing on) where we are going and why, and paying careful attention to the journey so that if someone takes a wrong turn we can correct them before we go too far.

One of the challenges will be to persuade our better-off brethren to leave their cars at home and get on the bus together.

We will also have to pick up the people on the side of the road who may not have enough money to pay the fare.

If we do that, we may find that we have people who can translate the demands of working people into language that the captains of ­industry understand.

And unemployed youth may finally be able to meet people in government to discuss what they would like to do and learn about what’s possible.

It could be an exciting journey.

We must just remember to pack enough sandwiches and water, and take enough money to buy petrol on the way, as well as enough in
reserve to pay for unexpected tolls and price increases.

» Muller is a visiting adjunct professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management, and an NPC commissioner. He is also a registered professional engineer 

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