Diébédo Francis Kéré: How to build with clay… and community http://ted.com/talks/diebedo_francis_kere_how_to_build_with_clay_and_community.html #TED Air: http://goo.gl/2Aftm
There are many things which the UK does well on the world stage. Tons! In fact too many raw and commendable achievements to list in one blog post or even to chronicle in a single book, and that is itself a testament to the past leadership, a great people and what a great country Britain has been and still is.
As someone who has been bred within the British system (in almost all good meanings of those words), I have great respect and admiration for the way Britain has done (for itself and the wider humanity), and how Britain continues to do certain things.
However, having said that, there are other things that current British political leaders have not been too good at, and are in fact utterly appalling at.
Before I explore this point further, please allow me to share with you a story that relates not to current political leaders in the UK, but to current political leaders in the US
Last year, I read an article that was commenting over the results of the 2012 US general elections. In October, several months later, the 2013 US government shutdown happened, reminding me about the contents in that article.
In a nutshell, the author of the article opined that Mitt Romney was not a bad leader. That with a few deliberate but permanent tweaks to his persona, he could make a good president, even a great president. I know that summary in itself sounds somewhat mechanical and dreamy, but I totally agreed with this conclusion, for reasons which you will understand once you’ve finished reading this post.
In the weeks following the US government shutdown (and much recently, the ‘greed’ speech by Boris Johnson) , I found myself viewing these events with similar sentiments. i.e. that if you are someone who has felt the pangs of pain of not having enough, experienced the life of living in a poor family, of struggle, of constantly being sidelined, the want which ‘the bottom’ 60% maybe 70% experience, in one form or the other, you are more likely than not, to know specifically how to treat or accommodate others (especially those who for whatever reason find themselves in that societal bracket) sensitively and constructively, than if you have lived a relatively comfortable and wealthy life, with little or no deprivation, pain or material want. It sounds apologetic or a bit like a get out of jail card justifying exploitation, but it isn’t.
The issue of how the ruling classes treat the masses is a lot more serious than how some people like to portray it. It transcends even the Marxist theory of inequality and poverty and many other attempts to capture its gravity. And here, we can also reference to the credit crunch, the riotous issue of healthcare insurance in the US, and repossession of personal property. To some people, these are merely transactional issues with little or no personal implications or emotion attached to them. To these lucky few, they still have a roof over their heads – one they own; they have enough food, money; investments, savings, affluent friends and family, they can still afford one or more holidays a year, they can still afford 2 bottles of fine wine a week, the golf club membership is intact, the steaks and gourmet dinners with acquaintances, business partners, or with family; the trips to the movies, they can still attend concerts and the Broadway featured shows, etc …. very little, if at all anything has changed in their lives. Which is totally fine. Whatever works for you.
But to others, those who have actually been affected, lack of health insurance, a repossessed home, or a rise in energy bills is a much more personal and grave issue that will materially and negatively affect them, often for a very long time. A repossession/ foreclosure means losing their home, not having security, their poor credit rating just worsened (making it harder for them to obtain credit in future – exacerbating an already bad situation), it means there is less money for a decent diet – which could affect their health; the impact on their mental health, and on their children (part of it being psychological), the societal stigma, the personal shame, the resulting hardship, etc…is all immensely difficult to deal with. Often depression follows.
Sadly, you never truly know how difficult such situations are, until you experience them yourself.
Yet, isn’t it incredible how the suffering of others somehow solicits critiques from folk who have never gone through it themselves. Barking senseless orders to those affected :
Oh they shouldnt have got a mortgage in the first place (what about those who were issuing the mortgages, don’t they get any blame) ; Shit happens ; It’s the system; You can’t keep everyone happy; Not everyone can live comfortably or achieve success in life; Inequality is necessary for competition
Which brings me to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London. In his speech recently he was quoted to have said that greed was a necessary motivator. That inequality was essential to fostering “the spirit of envy“, hailing greed as a “valuable spur to economic activity“.
Now, I think I’ve got a bit of an idea what he may have been trying to say, but I don’t believe his selection of words is particularly helpful in a country that has one of the widest gap between rich and poor in the western world, and whose recent policies have been criticised by even some of its greatest living champions.
Depending on who you choose to listen to (see other accounts here and here), his speech was either brilliant or hopelessly misleading. In my view it represents exactly the type of rotten politician who has been responsible for societal disharmony and global unrest over the last few years. The comments are similar to the contemptible and greed driven line-up-for-oil-contracts-now-that-Gaddafi-has-died comments made by a UK defence minister after Gaddafi’s death. And that’s coming from someone who didn’t exactly like Gaddafi.
But let’s think a moment about Boris’s comments. Weren’t the same “hedge fund kings” he idolizes part of the devilish and unholy alliance of risk prone bankers, unhinged speculators and others greedy sorts who were largely responsible for the global financial crisis that recently destroyed the global economy? A crisis which in the end, after all the bonuses had been paid – and the rich had gotten richer, had to fall back on state-owned banks, financed by the same poor tax payer (here, the US term ‘tax dollars‘ is particularly appropriate ) virtually being shitted on by this speech, to bail them out?
Never mind his ignorant remarks on IQ (a rebuttal of which deserves its own blog post), how can in this day and age a self-respecting politician stand up, and publicly say that it is futile to attempt to end inequality? Where on earth is this man living? Does he even have a functioning ethical compass? No wonder many young people think politicians are out of touch with reality.
Can one preach at home inequality of races and nations and advocate abroad good-will towards all men?
– Dorothy Thompson
[Here think about David Cameron’s agenda in his recent Sri Lanka visit]
My attitude to peace is rather based on the Burmese definition of peace – it really means removing all the negative factors that destroy peace in this world. So peace does not mean just putting an end to violence or to war, but to all other factors that threaten peace, such as discrimination, such as inequality, poverty.
Even the Great Nelson Mandela had some wise and thoughtful words of advice on poverty (which is an effect of inequality) via this quote:
I don’t have anything personal against Boris Johnson. In fact before he made that speech, I kind of liked him… but after such thoughless statements (which in my view go beyond all the silly but harmless things he’s said in the past), I’m surprised how he can be so insensitive??
But how is Boris Johnson’s speech related to Mitt Romney? Well, Mitt happens to be the fellow who said:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” [leaked comments from a fundraiser in May 2012]
a statement which he later regretted, and which solely probably costed him the US presidency. [More Mitt quotes here]
My point with all this?
Shouldn’t Politics be about representing the people, both rich and poor; Leadership – whether in Africa, America, Europe or elsewhere, should be about creating a functional, healthier, safer, happier, more productive society? How better to do that than by leading by example?
In my view, today’s leaders cannot help the poor or indeed know how severe the situations of low-income earners (or those suffering with sickness, that are unemployed, in debt, etc, ) can be, when they are cushioned from that horrible world by a media obsessed with sanitizing news. Unless they make a serious attempt to experience the common man’s life, they’ll remain blind – and we’ll continue to hear more such stupid comments.
It is vain, immature and wantonly elitist to go around advocating inequality and greed when you have never experienced its less than admirable effects firsthand.
Very few people choose to be poor, so how valid are divisive comments on greed when you don’t know how the victims of inequality live, how they deal with the daily problems they face (the solutions of which you smart-arsly cobble together in your speeches – with no first hand experience) or even how they became affected in the first place?
Boris Johnson’s claim to hardship probably extends no further than the couple of times his wife kicked him out their marital home, after repeatedly cheating on her. That clearly is not hardship.
Which brings me to my next point.
Don’t you think there is a higher probability that society could be more cohesive, stronger across the board, people more responsible towards each other, harmonious and more likely to successfully combat the problems of the day if high income groups were genuinely sensitive to the needs and circumstances of low-income groups, and low-income groups were sensitive to the needs and circumstances of high income groups?
I know it sounds a bit fanciful and rather idealistic, but allow me please to give you an example.
I watch Secret Millionaire and Undercover Boss, both of which I think are fantastic shows. Sometimes they bring tears to my eyes as I watch hardworking folk struggle with the challenges of life, getting by on very little, a life that I’m accustomed to and know just too well.
And then the millionaire or ‘boss’ steps onto the scene, in disguise, and after making observations over a few weeks, has their outlook transformed as to how others in a different world to themselves live and work. After this ‘eye opener’ the millionaires reveal their identities, and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to some causes, or in the case of Undercover Boss, donates tens of thousands of dollars to their employees, paying for their medical bills, childcare, education, long overdue holidays, etc., sometimes transforming the employees life beyond their wildest dreams.
I know there are people out there who hand on heart don’t want to mix with those from less fortunate backgrounds, or those from a different religious persuasion, or those who they have been made to believe embody certain negative stereotypes, but how can society be harmonious or progress if people across the board are inflexible to understanding what causes inequality, poverty, hardship, but are only too willing to complacently make preachy damaging statements, from within their comfort zones?
Like Mandela, Gandhi to me represents the near-ideal leader all leaders should aspire or measure themselves against; how he had few possessions and believed in the notion that what you did for others was more honourable and worthy than what you did for yourself is. Or Thomas Sankara, the military leader of Burkina Faso, who being selfless and incorruptible, triumphed women’s causes.
A good leader thinks thus: We’ve created more jobs, even though we are in a recession and have implemented cuts that will affect mostly the poorest, I’ll take a holiday or two abroad this year because my family and I need it, we need a break.
A great leader refuses to take a holiday abroad because there are thousands of citizens who, although hardworking, are failing to get a job and certainly can’t afford a holiday, not even in their own country.
The difference couldn’t be clearer.
In the article I refer to above, the writer opined that Mitt was not a bad person in a Newt-Gingrich (or Michael Howard )-creepy kind of way. To the contrary, he thought Mitt was quite a likeable person whom you’d probably have a fun night out with. What struck me most was the form the writer said the refining of a statesman would take:-
‘Picture this, say post Bain Capital , family man Mitt left his family, took time out to hit the road.
Spent at least 2 years without the safety net of his wealth (estimated to be $250 million), nor access to the political or business connections. If Mitt effectively took a sabbatical from it all; living rough, or say in $50 a night motels (with a daily budget not exceeding say $75 a day) studying the political landscape, working with people on the ground, in homeless shelters, interacting with people in soup kitchens, with those who have faced foreclosures, hearing their side of the story, amongst black and latino voters, job seekers, support groups of alcohol and drugs abuse, among illegal immigrants and those without healthcare, keeping a journal, taking photos…across both Democrat and Republican strongholds, through the Swing States, with a backpack… don’t tell me that after such a 2 year-long odyssey, Mitt would be the same person he now is?
True, he’d most likely meet with frowns, and possibly lose artificial friends, colleagues, partners, donors, etc. In the absence of proper communication (and feasible marriage arrangements) his family could be hostile towards him, or even abandon him, but a real conviction and desire to serve would prompt him to press on.
It is more likely than not that after having seen how a sizeable chunk of Americans in a different ‘world’ than that in which he’s accustomed to lives, that he would emerge a changed man, full of firsthand insights and clear understanding of life in the slow lane, and without the superficial and aloof manner that probably alienated some of the potential voters away from him. Minimally, it would win him deserved commendation, from both rich and poor, that at least he’s experienced a little of what the local man goes through, even if its only for two years, and would immediately dispel any elitist labels. If I were an American, I would seriously consider voting for such a Mitt Romney.’
I can’t argue with that.
Today we are still talking about Gandhi, 65 years after his death, with the United Nations General Assembly declaring in 2007 that Gandhi’s birthday 2 October will be the International Day of Nonviolence. 2nd October is also a national holiday in India in Gandhis honour.
When it comes to Mandela, we will continue to idolize him for a very long time indeed, and have idolized Abraham Lincoln, another great leader, for over 181 years! [see these Lincoln statues – in the US alone]. There’s even a Lincoln square in Manchester (UK) city centre with a statue of Lincoln.
I can’t help but wonder in what sense, and for how long, humanity will remember the current breed of politicians, many of whom appear to be doing more harm than good to society.
But I’m certain of one thing: unless some kind of miracle occurs, very few of them will be recognised or honoured in the same way that the world has honoured the likes of Lincoln, Gandhi or Mandela. And that alone is an indictment against their leadership.