Global problems need local solutions

The Covid crisis is the story of two global solutions to a medical problem: one was lockdowns; the other, vaccines. Lockdowns with social distancing were implemented in all countries on the advice of medical experts. They prevented the virus spreading. Lockdowns also had many side-effects from which people suffered greatly. Businesses closed down and people lost incomes. In crowded Indian cities, where poor people had no place to stay locked in, they had to venture out even to fetch water, and were harassed by police enforcing the lock-down. The single-minded focus on the treatment of Covid shut out patients of other ailments from hospitals. Doctors estimated that more people died from lack of treatments they were getting, but could not any longer, than the numbers who were treated for Covid. Closures of schools, even in richer countries, caused concerns about the long-term impacts on the development of children. In many countries—the US, the UK, the Netherlands, and others—citizens ailed by lock-downs, refused to follow the rules, causing law-and-order problems too.

Responsibility for the governance of complex systems must be devolved to communities in their localities. However, not only politicians, also experts at the top, are reluctant to let go of their power. They claim that the locals will not have the capability to manage, and so the Centre must take on the burden of managing the locals.

The roll-out of new vaccines is a remarkable story of innovations produced by many scientists and many organisations in many countries. Citizens waited anxiously for the vaccines to become available. However, governments followed protocols established by medical scientists for testing new vaccines very strictly to ensure there would be no side-effects when solutions found in labs were applied to masses of people. The contrast between how the two solutions were implemented raises important questions: about scale, centralisation, and the scientific approach. These must be addressed urgently because humanity has large challenges and needs effective ways to meet them.

Problems such as persistent poverty and inequality, poor health, and environmental degradation, that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to solve are systemic issues. They have multiple inter-acting causes. They cannot be solved by any one actor. Nor are they amenable to silver bullet solutions…

Centralisation is the wrong approach for solving complex problems which manifest in different shapes in different places. For example, environmental problems combine with livelihood problems in different ways in the Himalayan mountains in the North of India, in the dry lands of Rajasthan in the middle, and in the lush coastal regions of Kerala in the South. Therefore, local systems solutions are necessary for such global systemic problems. The solution is, responsibility for the governance of complex systems must be devolved to communities in their localities. However, not only politicians, also experts at the top, are reluctant to let go of their power. They claim that the locals will not have the capability to manage, and so the Centre must take on the burden of managing the locals.

In their drive for ‘economies of scale’ economists and managers are overlooking the need for ‘economies of scope’

Clearly, we cannot carry on the way we are. Therefore we must examine some prevalent beliefs driving models of growth. For one, the paradigm of progress has swung too far towards the global and has forgotten the local. And another, in their drive for ‘economies of scale’ economists and managers are overlooking the need for ‘economies of scope’. Economies of scope emerge when diverse capabilities, even on small scales, are easily accessible to each other, can produce innovations together, and improve the overall performance of the system.

Large global supply chains create economic efficiencies. Food is grown in large farms across the world, each specialising in different vegetables and fruits. However. these large global chains consume more energy, cause more damage to the environment, and create more risk than local networks. The average morsel of food eaten by an American travels about 1,500 miles from these large farms to reach his fork. On the way, large quantities of oil are burnt for refrigeration and transportation and lots of carbon is spewed into the atmosphere. Such global chains increase other risks too. When bad tomatoes were suspected to be the cause of a salmonella problem in the USA, it was impossible for retailers to pin-point their source. So, supplier farms had to be shut down in many places across the world. The ‘sub-prime’ financial crisis was another example of risks in large interconnected supply chains. The theory was that the financial system would be safer by spreading risky loans across a wider system. However, when things began to go wrong there was panic because it was not clear where the bad bits were hidden!

Big is not always better. Ecologists explain how small systems, with diversity within them, have the ability to adapt and evolve.

When Thomas Friedman launched his paean to a global world, The Earth is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, in Delhi in 2005, I was invited, along with Mani Shankar Aiyar, Indian cabinet minister for local self-government, to discuss Friedman’s book with him at the launch. Aiyar pointed out the flaw in Friedman’s thesis. Friedman said the world was flat because he observed that people in Bangalore could now talk to anyone, anywhere in the world. Aiyar retorted that people in Bangalore, while becoming integrated with the world, did not know what was happening in villages just fifty miles away. They were flying around the world connecting with people in New York and London and losing touch with those nearby.

Fashions in Ideas Are Hard to Change

Big is not always better. Ecologists explain how small systems, with diversity within them, have the ability to adapt and evolve. They are more sustainable than large systems. They do not expend too much energy in making connections between their diverse parts. They may not have ‘economies of scale’ but they have powerful ‘economies of scope’. Diversity makes life more interesting also. Thus, life within city neighbourhoods that have their own groceries, cafes, bookshops, and doctors is more pleasant than in cities which are segregated into large zones dedicated for different uses.

There are many examples from India and elsewhere that show that local community solutions for water are more effective and sustainable than gigantic storage and long-distance transportation schemes.

Several foresighted people in the last century have suggested that we should look for more local solutions to what have become global problems. In their book, Winning the Oil Endgame, published in 2004, Amory Lovins and his colleagues in the Rocky Mountain Institute explained how ‘a legion of small, fast and simple microgeneration and efficiency projects’ could be the answer to the world’s energy problems. In Deep Economy (2007), Bill McKibben made a compelling case for local food networks. There are many examples from India and elsewhere that show that local community solutions for water are more effective and sustainable than gigantic storage and long-distance transportation schemes. And micro-credit to local women’s self-help groups has become a success story of micro-empowerment…

Mahatma Gandhi foresaw the village community as an environmentally and socially sustainable solution to India’s needs.

Both Mahatma Gandhi and Adam Smith propounded the idea of markets. And both expressed the idea in terms of local and social phenomena, rather than in terms of global commodity and currency markets. Smith’s baker and candlestick maker lived in the same village and knew each other. Mahatma Gandhi foresaw the village community as an environmentally and socially sustainable solution to India’s needs. Into that interdependent community, in which people would respect each other, he wanted to draw all providers of services, including the village’s scavengers. It is unlikely that the concept of the global village will be sustainable if local towns and villages do not thrive.

(The above piece is excerpted from the book ‘A Billion Fireflies - Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-pandemic World’, authored by Arun Maira and published by Notion Press in March 2021. Maira is the former Chairman of Boston Consulting Group, a former member of the Planning Commission of India and now Chairman of Helpage International)