Keep it real

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

At a gathering of the great and the good recently, we tried to make sense of our world. The mood seemed to swing from exhilaration, to anxiety and then to guarded optimism. I sought some inspiration as to what my last column of 2016 should be about. “Why don’t you write about real things?” one guest said. “There is just too much noise, hyperbole, spin and rhetoric, what we should be talking about is what is actually being built, produced and achieved.”

That is some challenge in a world where it is increasingly hard to separate truth from fiction. Comedians who specialise in parody and sarcasm have serious competition. People hide their true selves in social media. Manufactured reality, artificially promoted hashtag trending, and doctored photos affect perceptions.  Fake news goes viral and displaces reality at a speed which makes the honest messenger appear pedestrian. Bold statements sometimes defy the most simple fact checks. And those inclined to verify information turn to search engines which can prioritise revenue generation over relevance. The search for truth has a price. When data or authentication disproves assertions, keyboard cowards emerge as unabashed trolls. Perhaps, more smart phones need to be in the hands of courageous people with integrity to displace the dullards.

For faith in governments to be sustained, we have to deliver real change. Promises of peace, security and prosperity through inclusive growth can only be credible when people verify that the quality of life in their community has improved. Infrastructure has to move from power point presentations and budgetary approvals to trains, buses and planes people can use and experience shorter journey times. Unfashionable but essential public works like sewage systems, water reservoirs, and waste management have to keep pace with demand. The photo ops for ground breaking ceremonies may offer a brief flash of recognition. The spectre of human detritus, murky rivers and garbage mountains are more difficult to erase from memory.

For any incoming Administration, the early focus has to be on getting the basic structures right. Ordinary citizens carry the real cost to their vital interests if officials are appointed into positions of responsibility on any basis other than merit. Key roles in public institutions need to be filled with able people. The executive have to set clear policy goals, allocate resources and then monitor delivery, measured by real outcomes not staged PR stunts.

Core needs of people have to be addressed. Adequate housing provision is a challenge every country faces. There are plenty of models to choose from. In Britain, home ownership has grown but the demand for rented accommodation still outpaces supply. Social housing, which includes private and not for profit providers, is part of the answer. But the simple fact is that more homes have to be built everywhere. Patients, young or old, will not give a government a clean bill of health, until they are convinced by the reality of the quality and speed of care they receive. With people living longer and the availability of more treatment options, expectations of what the health system should provide are rising. The hunger for education that students have, requires accessible classrooms, qualified teachers who turn up for work and curricula that inspire discovery and real world application of knowledge.

Change is not possible without reform. People in their private and working lives need to be liberated to reach their true potential.  Inertia and red tape grow across public institutions mainly because public officials mistake process as a proxy for action. A ruthless cull of purposeless procedures, documents and permits is essential. Productivity of resources above and below ground is released not by limiting ownership but by opening up responsible use of assets. Protection of vulnerable people or markets is not achieved by sustaining weakness in perpetuity. Level playing fields, openness of opportunity and real justice are more durable remedies.

Every family understands the true limits of their financial situation. They recognize the reality that a government cannot make unfunded spending pledges. A wider tax base and more effective collection of revenues are accepted by citizens when they are more reassured about accountability, probity and delivery. People are entitled to be suspicious of financial alchemy where paper transactions and institutional jargon disguise irresponsible state borrowing. The stark fact is that debts have to be repaid, not perhaps by the immediate beneficiaries but the next generation.

In a world of harsh realities, the human spirit also needs fantasies and dreams. For my readers who are young at heart, please hold on to the belief that if you have been really good this year, then a cheerful person in a red and white suit will find a way to reward you with gifts that you truly deserve. Maligayang Pasko.

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(Asif Ahmad is the Ambassador of the United Kingdom)

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