It’s come to be a metaphor for the inflated self-regard of politicians around the world. Like the Wizard, there comes a time when they pull levers and nothing happens. For many governments, that time is now.
The levers no longer work and the centre isn’t holding. It has taken the twin threats of a public health emergency and devastating economic inequities to make this picture plain to all. Some have retreated into nationalism; others into epochal pessimism.
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The latest report from the US National Intelligence Council, ‘Global Trends 2040’, describes the pandemic as ‘the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II’ in terms of its medical, political and security implications.
As people sense that governments are losing their grip, they are mobilising in new ways. That portends, according to the US report, ‘more political volatility, erosion of democracy and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance’.
It all adds up to an era of heightened competition between systems of governance and a ‘growing mismatch between what publics need and expect and what governments can and will deliver’.
Although these warnings are in the public domain, national leaders and international bureaucrats haven’t got the message. Public health is an area where starting with the grassroots works so much better than top-down policies. Africa’s experience in dealing with epidemics, especially Ebola, river blindness and Guinea worm, shows the key importance of local initiative.
That works for prevention and sounding alarms, as well as organising treatment. Vital intelligence about health crises often comes from farmers in remote areas. It depends on trust. National and international resources are needed to manufacture vaccines and protective equipment, but they require well-informed and credible local groups to distribute them.
Such life lessons from the pandemic offer a counter to forecasts of ineluctable descent into authoritarianism or government breakdown. Parallels for education, economic and development policy are obvious. Our new digital networks are joining up grassroots organisations across the globe, sharing expertise and building solidarity. Sending resources to local initiatives, especially those run by women, creates more wealth, more jobs and spreads knowledge. Widely shared warnings of global food shortages should concentrate thinking and funds on the local.
None of this is to diminish the importance of getting international accords on corporate taxation, the global distribution of vaccines, or the transfer of allocations of the IMF’s reserve currency to developing economies. Those are necessary conditions for progress, but they are far from sufficient.
National governments have to ratchet down the hubris. Admitting the levers don’t work is a good first step. Devolving far more resources and power to the regions and the grassroots is the next stage.
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