The case for social learning and systems practice in development – Part 2

I think we can all agree that the general level of well-being among the Kosovo people is currently very low. It does not really matter what indicators we use the results are the same. We are simply not delivering on the hope and aspirations of the Kosovo people.

Young people are losing hope about the future while the old cannot rely on the state to supply adequate pensions and health care services. Wealth is mainly accumulated by a small political-business élite, while the large majority of the population struggle to make ends meet on minimal funds (including the Diaspora’s life-line of remittances).

Systems graph

Managing a modern nation-state in a way that generates real well-being for the large majority of its citizens is difficult, very difficult. There are no quick-fixes, there is only planning, dialogue and hard-work. Consequently, few countries on Earth can really do it! The issues at hand when running a state that puts citizens first are complex, and involves multiple stakeholders participating actively in a continuous process of transformation. Few political leaders can cope with so much democracy, dialogue and long-term thinking.

From a systems perspective, one strong system cannot compensate for the under-performance of other systems. For the supra-system to produce real well-being among the population, and that should be what we all care about, the social, cultural, political and free market systems must perform well in their own right, and the inter-relationship between and among them must be open, positive and constructive. In communism, the political system was dominant, and it even set out to change and subdue all the other societal systems, creating the ‘Soviet man’ to replace the family, the ‘Party-tail’ to replace religion while all economic activity was nationalised and managed by state bureaucrats. In post-2008 financial crisis, the West (winners of the Cold War) is clinging on to the free-market system,  as it is the only viable saviour of all evils in society, and allowing the political system to carve away at democratic and humanitarian principles in the name of the Holy Grail of Economic Growth!

To change the course of development in Kosovo, and improve the overall well-being of Kosovo citizens, as in many other places on Earth today, there is a need among us all, as system and sub-system actors and institutions to adopt a Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS) approach to societal development.

The ‘systemic well-being’ of Kosovo people, the environment and future generations, is currently being ignored. Numerous donor projects are making ‘reality judgments’ to address problems in individual systems and sub-systems, but few make any ‘value judgment’, highlighting the ‘ethical and moral aspects’ of the actions. (Bawden in Blackmore 2010:97) We are winning the occasional development battle, but we are far from winning the ‘well-being’ war. As a result of too many ‘discipline-based experts missing the whole picture’, the overall well-being among Kosovo citizens remains very poor. And this despite 15 years of almost unlimited financial and technical assistance by some of the most developed countries on Earth.

One reason for this under-performance is the prevailing technocentric and corporatism worldviews held by the local political-business élite and the international donor agencies active in Kosovo. According to Richard Bawden, the worldviews we hold ‘filter our understandings, our frames of mind as the contexts of our judgments and our fundamental beliefs as the foundation of our morality’. With the return of democracy, more holistic, egalitarian and communitarian worldviews are emerging in Kosovo, which could lead to a more balanced discourse on what constitutes sustainable development and a ‘good society’ in Kosovo. (Bawden in Blackmore 2010:49-50)

However, this discourse, or ‘examination of similarities and differences in beliefs and values’ can only take place when participating societal actors and institutions adopt a higher degree of ‘criticality’. (Bawden in Blackmore 2010:94) In Kosovo, the political system is dominated by a self-serving political-business élite that is neither critical of the ‘conditions of the environments’ nor ‘critically reflexive about (their) own structure and functions’. (Bawden in Blackmore 2010:95)

Taking into consideration that most policies in Kosovo since 1999 were created and implemented with some level of ‘participation’ by international donor agencies and consultants, and that the final outcomes of these policies are visibly poor (we still suffer from high unemployment, slow economic growth, poor health-care, lack of water, plenty of air pollution, extensive poverty, social exclusion, etc.), it is questionable to what extent the international donor agencies themselves are any more critical in their evaluation of the situation in Kosovo, and of their own roles.

To some extent, this lack of criticality is a result of what Geoffrey Vickers brands the ‘failure of communication’. By not adequately opening up the societal dialogue to representatives of the social, cultural and free market systems, the actors and institutions of the political system in Kosovo are failing to identify and maintain ‘appropriate shared ways of distinguishing the situations in which we act, the relations we want to regulate, the standards we need to apply, and the repertory of actions which are available to us.’ (Geoffrey Vickers in Blackmore 2010:93) In other words, by only communicating among each other the existing status quo in society becomes the ‘declared’ reality, no matter how unreal and how un-sustainable this reality may seem to actors and institutions in the social, cultural and free market systems.

In Kosovo, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the Media do not yet act as the third and fourth pillars of democratic society, demanding accountability and transparency from the political system, and ensuring that an open participatory societal dialogue take place on key development issues.

To move towards social learning would include the acceptance of ‘personal and shared experience as the basis for learning and development’ among system actors and institutions. (Bawden in Blackmore 2010:99) In other words, by working together we will learn together. It’s not enough to read about ‘good practices’ from other countries, we must attempt to implement these practices as well, and preferably do so using our own financial resources, which always does wonder to the sense of ownership.

We must also accept that ‘my world is different from yours and this must always be so.’ (Ison in Blackmore 2010:85) Among diverse views and beliefs, it is important to foster dialogue, rather than debate. ‘Dialogue is a process that does not seek consensus, but to provide an environment for learning, to think together.’ (Ison in Blackmore 2010:81) Unfortunately, within the political system in Kosovo, the predominant culture of communication is confrontation, and media platforms encourage debate, not dialogue. While debates are about destroying the opponents’ arguments, dialogue is about sharing experiences and working out new, positive solutions together. When was the last time you saw a TV show based on this premise?

To maintain social learning will also require that the political system welcome a high degree of citizen participation in the democratic processes. Unfortunately, ‘power structures in current forms of liberal democracy have biased decision making against sustainability…our current political system tend to appease powerful economic interests at the expense of the overall well-being of the majority and the environment.’ (Jim Woodhill in Blackmore 2010:60) The international response to the crisis in Greece has been just the opposite to social learning, including systematic changes focusing entirely on saving the financial sub-system while ignoring the costs to the social, cultural, free market and political systems.

Within the context of Kosovo and with the ambition of bringing about improvements in the critical social learning system’s effectiveness, there is a need to strengthen the relative influence of the social, cultural and free market systems on the societal supra-system. This would open up space for more frequent, open and constructive societal dialogue.

Of equal importance would be to strengthen the private sector sub-system by making it more viable, competitive and export-oriented, as well as more independent of the political system. This new private sector sub-system would create employment, economic growth and contribute tax revenue to the state, which in turn would strengthen the free market system and the societal supra-system.

In support of the social system, the intervention should have one objective and that is to eradicate poverty, starting with reducing poverty among vulnerable groups in society. In support of the cultural system, the intervention should focus on promoting world views in society that are holocentric, values and beliefs that are in line with egalitarianism and communitarianism to counter balance the prevailing technocentric worldviews, which offers only short-term and systematic solutions, but produces no real development.

Within the political system, democratic principles should be promoted, focusing on ways to increase transparency in public affairs as a means of reducing corruption. Corruption kills people’s faith in the democratic political system. New platforms for communication are needed to encourage dialogue, not debate, on societal development issues. Good governance should be promoted in government and public administration, and there is a need to punish official abuse of public authority and resources.

Finally, to promote social learning as a development tool more research on its practical impact on society is required. There is a need for practical success stories in social learning, which could be replicated by countries in need of systemic change. Kurt Lewin’s ‘action research’ concept offers this opportunity. However, to achieve this stage a country’s leadership must show great courage and commitment to change, because “you cannot understand a system until you try to change it” (Ramage and Shipp 2009:262). Who will take the risk to lead the charge for change in Kosovo?

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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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