The case for social learning and systems practice in development – Part 1

My ‘situation of concern’ involves the struggle within transitional states, such as Kosovo, to establish a societal supra-system (see illustration below) that generates well-being among citizens. I am also concerned with the ‘tension of difference’ and conflicts within and between social, cultural, political and free market systems. Between the levels of a stable hierarchy there is emergence in systems dynamics as a result of the interaction and influence among systems and sub-systems, which often hinder the emergence of a well-functioning free market system. (Richard Bawden in Blackmore 2010:41) In turn, the private sector sub-system in Kosovo is under-performing, and as a consequence it does not generate the necessary employment, economic growth and taxation to uphold a well-functioning free market system.

Systems graph

As a development manager, my ‘situation of concern’ also includes a professional frustration with donors and local institutions’ fixation with systematic thinking, short-term results and first-order change, which in turn shape development policy-making and implementation, and dictates what is recognised as ‘effective performance’. For example, Kosovo has improved its World Bank’s Doing Business ranking for three consecutive years. A deliberate choice was made to ‘pursue the systematic route’ of development, meaning more of the same, more efficiently. The result is first-order change, and ’effective performance’ in systematic terms. However, despite this improved ranking, the wellbeing of Kosovo citizens has not improved. To achieve that, a systemic route should be taken opening up the possibility of second-order change, ‘a change that changes the whole situation’, the entire system. (Ison 2010:191) This would mean going beyond economics and measuring hope, health and happiness.

Currently, there is no drive to ‘abandon certainty’ and to value the benefits of social learning and there is little recognition among donor agencies, in line with second-order cybernetics, that they are part of the situation, and not acting in an external ‘objective position’. (Ison 2010:256-257) Our inability to assume uncertainty and complexity hinders us from producing sustainable development solutions. Without a systemic approach, policies often conflict causing unintentional consequences in practice. In Kosovo, a policy push for free trade agreements may look like progress on paper, but when it involves strong manufacturing countries, such as Turkey, it will make the development of domestic industries in Kosovo increasingly difficult. The final impact on employment and trade balance are bound to be negative.

In Kosovo there is limited democratic dialogue in which actors and institutions ‘within society engage with each other to understand, contest and influence the direction of social change.’ (Woodhill in Blackmore 2010:62-63) Development practitioners should facilitate this dialogue to stimulate a ‘gradual transformation of the system as a whole’ and as learners multiply and new ideas come into ‘good currency’ it becomes a learning system. (Donald Schön in Blackmore 2010:215)  The ideas in ‘good currency’ could be solidarity among people, export-led economic growth, social inclusion, etc.

However, in present Kosovo social change can best be described as being ‘dictated by tradition, existing institutional structures, brute economic and political power, vested interests, technocratic and instrumental thinking, political expediency or ambivalent resignation to the status quo’ (Woodhill in Blackmore 2010:63) Conservative systems protect themselves against ideas that may have disruptive consequences, yet ‘(w)hen the ideas are taken up by people already powerful in society this gives them a kind of legitimacy and completes their power to change public policy’. (Donald Schön in Blackmore 2010:11) Herein lay the development challenge. The day when the local political-business élite in Kosovo move from imports, retail and infrastructure construction to manufacturing, exports and investments in human resources, is the day when unemployment, trade deficit and poverty will start to fall. It’s about appreciating and acting on a sincere sense of statehood and civility.

Robert Chambers puts the finger on the core issue for the political-business élite in Kosovo, when he proclaims that the biggest challenge of the 21st Century is to “find better ways to enable those who are powerful to gain more satisfaction from exercising less power”. In other words, instead of succumbing to greed and corruption, short-term thinking and self-interests, which only leads to the collapse of the supra-system, the political-business leadership must embrace social learning and begin to value and appreciate other things in life than the application of power and accumulation of personal wealth, such as seeing less poor children in the streets of Pristina, cleaner air, less emigration, functioning health services, 24/7 water supply, etc. At this point in time, Kosovo urgently needs individuals equipped with a new sense of individualist motivation, “a drive for achievement, which will not only aim at personal gain but also convert this gain into productive investment, which may eventually benefit society generally.” (Thomas, 2000:37)

However, this approach will require us to be ‘self-confrontational’, which is always a challenge, and consequently we need to approach our situation in society differently from how we do it today. Kosovo, as a society and population, has the power to change ‘but only a fix on goodness could give our means their aim, support and meaning’. (Wilshire in Blackmore 2010:43) Development is more than technical solutions to single-cause problems, development also have ethical and aesthetic dimensions. There is a need for moral judgments to be made. Unfortunately, in societies where the development paradigm is dominated by donor agencies and local political-business élite the moral judgement is often eliminated from ‘our concepts of rationality’. (Ulrich in Blackmore 2010:43)

Jim Woodhill defines social learning as the ‘(p)rocesses by which society democratically adapts its core institutions to cope with social and ecological change in ways that will optimise the collective well-being of current and future generations’. Social learning ‘looks at how society understands both itself and its relation to the external environment, and then adapts its assumptions, belief systems, approaches to problem solving, and systems of social organisation, either to achieve particular ambitions or cope with external and internal threats’. A society incapable of applying social learning risks destruction, either by imploding as the social fabric breaks down or as a result of not coping with an external threat. (Woodhill in Blackmore 2010:63)

Donor agencies and local political-business élite, as core institutions in Kosovo, must pro-actively enhance social learning in order to replace the current “well-being for the few ” with “collective well-being” as the outcome of the societal supra-system. They can initiate this learning process by facilitating and supporting the emergence in Kosovo of positive social change, based on ‘open dialogue, democratic constraint of inequality, investment in education and social capital, the establishment of mediating forums, open policy processes, questioning of basic assumptions, and greater democratisation of politics and the techno-economic sphere’. (Blackmore 2010:63)


About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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