June 27, 2012

Let’s not break our social bonds

I write much about social division and its ugly ramifications because, unfortunately, it is where Maldivian society is heading for, if our civil society does not become aware of this and do something about it. Our politicians are too busy digging the trenches of division we call parties for them to care about the negative consequences – their only thought must be on the gains of position. But, because it will be we, the public, who will fall into those pits, we have to be the ones to anticipate such dangers and do that something to avert our fall.  The trick in setting a trap is the quality of the distraction. And that is what the trap setters know best. If a good enough bait is given, the result of a good catch is inevitable – the fishermen, bird and game trappers, and many of us too as occasional rat or mouse catcher in our homes, know this. The metaphor works for us as a community too. Our parties can lure us to the enticements given. But be assured, the pleasure of the bait can only be very short lived, and with the damage done, we will be too deep down in the pit to raise ourselves out and by then the perpetrator may be gone. Even in this short span of four years of multi-party democracy, we already see in Maldives, the widening cracks of division in our island communities as a consequence -- between old friends, loving spouses, among caring siblings, and even within hitherto cohesive island communities. That this is happening is telling of the fragility of our character when the whisperings of selfish desires can so easily derail generations of social bonding that exist in our communities Such a sad shame, surely not one that democracy called for! Alternatively, we can actively avert the perils. We can become aware of the dangers of division and actively seek the benefits of union, sharing and friendship.

There is nobody that has not experienced the happiness of union. Union or oneness leads to happiness. That is nature at its very basic. Family bonding, friendships, mergers, marriages, team, rallies, celebrations, nations, concerts, etc are all comings together – the convergence of people. Intrinsically, joy and happiness is in the getting together. So there is a certain inherent aspect that is bound in our DNA that makes us feel our essence when we are connected to each other. It is the feeling of comfort, confidence and security we experience in unity.

Every joining together – even our political parties – would be good in this sense if there is a rallying factor such as a common ideal or moral principle that all members band together to follow. However, when there is a divisive element inherent in this coming together the outcome will surely bear conflict. Dividing up society based on vested interests will undeniably breed conflict whereas constructive ideals, even though these may be many (as in many parties with such ideals leading those subscribing), will find the common ground because the basis of moral thought and action always is harmony.

Given the continuing conflict we see in Maldives in the exercise of our multi-party democracy, the public needs to seriously consider the reason for the seemingly good ideas of social togetherness falling apart and instead the emergence of the deeper dangers of conflict. It is not enough to brush aside the prevalence of such issues to the vagaries of politics as teething problems of democracy, or couched in careless comment such as “that’s what politics is” or to say “it’s acceptable because that is the fare of the political game all over the world”. Wrong doing, even if it’s done by everyone, will still count as wrong, and such wrongs need addressing with serious public engagement, for, the purpose of democracy and its leadership is to engender societal harmony – not conflict and anxiety.

The laws of nature cannot be wrong for us because we are the product of it. Our purpose and role is to follow its directive. Adjusting nature to our convenience will inevitably upset nature’s balance and it will not be a triviality to set it back on balance. Just like our climate change disaster is showing to us how nature can react to our mindless doing and the colossal effort needed to put it back on track, in the social sphere too, the disruption of our social structures from the harmony nature planned for us in our evolutionary essence will not go unscathed on us. We cannot wait for the inevitability to happen to us. We need alert and early action. Let’s not let anyone break our social bonds, it can only weaken us. 

June 26, 2012

Post RIO+20 must be about local action to cash in on the promises

With the Rio+20 conference ending in Brazil, it appears that much of the recommendations outlined 20 years ago in the 1992 conference still remain unattained. Known as the Agenda 21 (a global development agenda for the 21st century anchored in sustainable development), the historic document of the first Rio meeting described the connection among various development sectors and the need for them to work together if sustainable development was to be achieved. The call for action in the form or the Rio Declaration also captured the endorsement of so many Heads of State in this commitment. These outputs pointed to the fact that our world is really one entity; that anything we do to our ecosystem affects everything else – visibly or invisibly. The proverbial “flutter of a butterfly in Rio affecting the weather in China” is to be believed. The commitments then were that we would all work together for the protection of the environment (our common denominator) on which we all depend for our survival.

But in the twenty years hence, our present predicament has proved ourselves forgetful, with selfish gain being the winner. Instead of coming together, we have partitioned the world as never before and driven the divide between the haves and the have-nots even wider. With globalization and the IT technology that have sprouted during the interim, we have drifted ever farther apart even as the social media has made the chatter among ourselves longer and louder. The meeting in Rio that just ended, seemed for many, too influenced by the business sector and politicians on the one side and civil society on the other. As a public health professional, my work for the past several years has been to help bridge this awareness gap on the connection of human health and the environment. Taking Chapter 6 of the Agenda 21 as the basis, my effort has been to show how human health is linked to our development action in the other sectors.

A simple example may suffice. Let’s take the case of agriculture and transport. One would perhaps ask, “what do these have to do with health? Neither builds hospitals nor produces doctors?” This kind of parochial response was precisely what one would have got even then twenty years ago. Even 20 years later, we are still grappling with these basic questions. A new generation of policy makers and practitioners need to be re-oriented or re-educated. We need to realize that these sectors are man-made entities; not divine dictates. What god gave us are our lives not the tribes that we live in - that was our choice or making. It is our management gurus that have divided our world, and isolated our working environment -- separated ourselves for our political motives (or sometimes in the name of managerial efficiency) and ensconced in the comfort of that awareness or ignorance as the case may be, have taken this to be the reality of the universe. Yes, ignorance is bliss indeed; until reality strikes us, as when thronged and chaotic roads maim us, or contaminated vegetables poison or kill us.

The fumes from our motor vehicles and our factories are what give us the air pollution we have to breathe.  And it’s the resulting effects that we feel in our chest, our eyes, and fill our hospital emergency rooms. Similarly how many of us are aware of the chemicals used in agriculture and their grave danger to human health? The lure of big business distracts us from using the safer manure we can make ourselves from the waste nature leaves with us. Consequently, many agriculture workers are poisoned in their workplace, and we too as the recipients of the final product are exposed in varying degrees to the pesticide residues on our nice looking fruits and vegetables. This is the link of health with the other players in our development process. In these two cases, getting healthy means others having to play their part in reducing the use of pesticides, or growing more nutritious crops nationally, or regularly buckling-up when driving our cars, using unleaded gasoline, reducing the numbers of motor vehicles, or our traffic police doing a better beat. With such awareness comes the realization for undertaking collective action.

So we can now see that our health care costs are in fact the responsibilities of our development sectors as a collectivity. Our energy, environment, trade, education, social, sectors are all partners in this endeavor. Conferences such as that at Rio then and now and the many global UN sponsored conferences of the decades since then have had the same refrain of needing people of the world to be working together. However, the challenge really is at the national levels – to get political decision makers, the big business and civil society to work together. Unfortunately, it is in these details that we find the devil that stymies us. With collective thinking we can overcome. 

For Maldives, and our health sector, this realization needs to be instilled in our atoll leaders – the counselors – who must now take the reigns of leading health development in our decentralized system. The ministry of health cannot wait for making this happen. It is imperative that training and awareness be brought to bear on them so that we can maintain the gains the health sector has reaped over these past 5 decades or so.

June 25, 2012

Our own making?

A pervasive grouse in Maldives is about the difficulty of finding any foreign exchange nowadays. Could it be our own making? For a nation that imports almost everything except our fish, this is a major concern. A little reflection will reveal the cause to be the flight of the bigger part of the foreign exchange that comes into our country. Our local businesses preferring to tuck the money they make in Maldives in foreign banks or our guest workers sending the bigger chunk of what they earn in Maldives back to their own countries contribute to this scarcity. The first cause is understandable –perhaps because the businesses have no confidence in our banking system? The other is about Maldivians not willing to do less prestigious work (or is it just any regular work?) and the indolence that has beset our youth. Of course, there are scores of guest workers who are happily willing to take that advantage of our indolence to fill that gap of work in Maldives and send packets of foreign exchange to their countries every month draining away that which what could remain with us to circulate for our needs - our loss is their gain! Seriously we need to delve into the causes behind the causes if we want solutions. And be brave to take action. 

Where are the causes?  Perhaps we have become lazy because our parents provide for us. Perhaps our parents must look at life differently. Many parents who are rich seem to feel they don’t need to make their adult children earn their keep – as if that is a travesty of their love for them. Little do we realize that this is not love – love means to given them the freedom, and independence to survive by themselves. What we are doing instead is putting them in bondage; leaving the child to learn the difficulties of life only when the parents are no more. They need to be taught the skills of life from an early age for them to be ready for life when that day arrives. Hardships and knowing the ways of the unfortunate in life breeds character in the individual – the ingredient for responsible survival in this world. Unfortunately, we have come to want things so much, and spend so much on things that we don’t need. We have become citizens who fan our egos more than our true selves, and a government that does not attempt to tighten the austerity belt even as their own voices seem to flag the fact that national resources are drying up.

Our insatiable penchant for life’s luxuries and indolence to taking a regular job especially those seemingly less prestigious needs a reality check. Seeking something without working for it is by its very nature a serious social and moral issue. However, spending our hard earned foreign exchange on luxuries and lifestyles we cannot sustain is tantamount to foolishness. Why are we getting educated? To be fooled by the advertisements that tell us that we are inadequate and that we have to have what they sell for us feel whole? Parents must try to understand this, and youth too must be brought into this dialogue in schools, and public functions, in homes and at dining tables where social responsibility must be the subject of the future for our nation. Perhaps we have to focus social awareness onto parents again – for them to see hardship as character builders and that it is not shameful to make their children wash their own plates after meals, make their beds in the morning, wash their clothes some days, or dishing out some home duties of sweeping and dusting. It will be an opportunity for moral growth and will be their strength as adults. If we see life as a test, humility in both success and adversity is the line to take.

It is we who have charted the new course of democracy in our country and it is we who must change the mindset towards the principles that democracy calls for. It is our awareness of our predicament and being ready with the needed tools of engagement that will help us weather the economic and social storms that await us – those that can threaten our very existence as a proud nation. The world is moving into a time of unprecedented economic turmoil, that portends shortages for the future, especially for us developing countries. We must wake up to this dynamic and remove our heads out of the sand and stand on level ground to survive and continue to be counted as a nation.

June 21, 2012

Leading up the garden path

A hapless public looks on as party politics ravages on in our country Maldives. True, politics is about conflict because it’s always about how power, authority and position are to be apportioned or dispensed in society. In a true democracy, political interests will not subordinate the needs of the people. Graft and greed being a basic nature of human beings, democratic processes were devised with the hope of limiting that nature by the so called processes of checks and balances. If those balances cannot maintain the balance, we cannot but say we are engaging in hypocrisy.

Politics when used to solve society’s issues has to be tempered by principles of morality. It has to deal with solving issues without being seemingly unfair to our constituencies. The better politician is the one who can assuage the concerns of the polity while carrying the advantage of the gains he wants for himself (or herself). Total disregard for morals and bullying for selfish gains is the law of the jungle. (No, that may not be quite true either, for, no animal kills or eats more than it needs. There is a limit to even the lion's hunger -- at some point he is full and until hunger strikes again he would not kill; but sadly, that may not be so with humans).

Political leaders are elected to solve or manage society’s issues. By its nature, an issue is always neutral in its essence. The need for safe water for everyone, sharing of wealth, accessing health care and the like are all concerns of our societies that need solutions. They remain as neutral issues (non-controversial) that need solutions until we attempt to figure out ways of solving them with the resources called people money and material. Taking action on these necessitates the apportionment of roles and responsibilities to people or institutions that must carry out these. Here is when conflict sets in because the next step requires that there has to be a hierarchy of responsibilities -- somebody to lead and others to follow. It is at this point that our egos clash and the nature of our past nurturing comes into full public display. Some may profess that this is inevitable in every human effort. No denial on this. But given that we, in public life, have been given the public’s trust, must strive to give back commensurately. We must be ready for the negotiation – the give and take, and the balancing needed of these public positions so that public interest is maintained as priority against the buffeting personal interests. Perhaps because we are such a new democracy, with an uninformed and unaware public about the nature of democracy as a mechanism for governance – only just graduating from years of authoritarian rule that has our minds fossilized to the ways of the oppressor -- we are unable to decipher this new approach. But I would think it is at moments such as these that our leaders must lead with compassion and not lead the public up the garden path. It is here thus our maturity as leaders must come in, and equally, it is here that we need to expend much greater effort in educating our public about the virtues and vices of this thing called democracy. It is time for being aware that this new freedom is not for saying and behaving as we please, but with certain boundaries of ethical control and responsibility that respect the other’s sense of rights too. Even though it would be very hard for us to quickly give up our egos and settle into an objective frame of negotiation, the situation require of us this maturity as leaders, to attempt to solve our problems because we have been placed on that pedestal of authority and trust by the public to do precisely that. We must exercise that power with commensurate responsibility.

To engage in endless selfish wrangling with nothing but selfish motives to guide us would be the epitome of disservice to our nation – to the communities who elected us. This is not the purpose or process of democracy. It is the reason we showed the door to authoritarianism. If we don’t clean our act, we will be only playing out a charade and being deceitful to ourselves.