Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Managing and leveraging our hope quotient

THIS country does not allow young people hope", this was the rueful statement recently made to me by my younger brother, an amiable young man, who graduated, tops in his class, from Medical school about two years ago. I nodded at this casually uttered statement, which unknown to him was to have quite a profound effect on how I would begin to see, understand and empathise with the troubled youth of our country. In addition, it however provided great insight into the seemingly benign factor of how hope or the lack thereof, would significantly influence and possibly determine the psychology of this nation in years to come

When one pauses to deeply consider this, one begins to realise that the reluctance to hope and the unwillingness to unabashedly dream big dreams stymies development and produces seemingly innocuous, yet hugely damning consequences, for us all in the long run. It reminds me of a remark made of a terminally ill child who seemed so brave and admirably mature in the face of his looming fate: that such illnesses in children so young take away their dreams, but give them wisdom well beyond their years. It probably could be debated which was more desirable - dreams or wisdom? However, I am certain that most of us cherish the joyous naivety we exhibited in our youth as we tested life through somewhat opinionated and idealistic lenses. Ultimately, life has a way of gradually and dignifying-ly altering those rose-tinted lenses and bringing them in line with reality, but it does this in ways that cushion and manage what would otherwise be dysfunctional shocks to our system. The prevailing notion is that most of this realignment of our views ought to have happened by the time we turn 40 (hence the fool at forty notion ?) or else our fates thereafter lie sealed!

So what is the business of government with this concept of hope? All great nations, in addition to their obvious wealth and the strength of their institutions, provide an environment that enables the incubation of dreams. So strong is this incentive that it fosters not just the emotional daring, but also the means to live out these dreams. Fittingly, even if by coincidence, one can reference Barack Obama, who is today's exemplar of this fact, for his authorship of two books whose titles, respectively, acknowledge the immense value of "dreams" and of "hope". How would the spirit of enterprise, that today is America's main competitive strength, thrive if people could not foolishly dream? What would make a sophomore dunk the opportunity to graduate from Havard, as Bill Gates did, were it not for a "foolish" dream or what would make a political neophyte challenge the Clinton machinery for the highest office in the land, and in the process ignite the passions and dreams of people - old and young - across the globe, if not for a seemingly "foolish and audacious" dream?

Today, the United States views the, no longer benign, threat posed by China as a future world economic power with a great deal of wariness. However , almost all the literature that examines the dynamics of these two great nations duly conclude by not only acknowledging China's resurgence as a global economic power, but also make the point of lauding the freedom, openness and transparency of the American systems as a basis for speculating that the U.S. is likely to continue to have some significant dominance in global economics for a long while to come. And unfortunately, it is this singular dynamic that the opaque, communist regime in China may be least comfortable importing or imitating, as it portends great danger to its very power base.

So if the " hope" of a young Nigerian for a decent life in his country has been so greatly compromised - what do we (or can we) expect of him or her? Particularly where there are no compensatory default factors such as a decent family network, highly placed connections, access to foreign shores, access to decent education even in situations (made more dangerous as a result), where he sports a higher than average IQ? Where people have very little reason to expect decent rewards from otherwise meaningful endeavours, fundamental assumptions are turned on their heads and bemusement reigns. Today, most of our corporate and public leaders express huge frustration at the unwillingness of today's youth to apply themselves to meaningful, purposeful engagements and bemoan the seemingly easy recourse they take to militancy, kidnapping, fraud and other compromises for easy wealth. The situation cannot be simplistically reasoned away, but a key ingredient is that with hope frustrated, the negative feelings spawned seemingly appear to justify any actions taken to survive. That is why over and over again, we hear people wonder at how cheap life is in Nigeria. The reality is that people whose lives have little meaning can be easily compromised - even by themselves, as their view of life is relatively base and short-term in nature.

The need for hope must not be taken to apply only to the youth, but also to older Nigerians as well. It has been argued that the greatest force in life is "meaning" and that when meaning or the opportunity to pursue one's aspirations is snuffed out or greatly compromised, a man becomes a shell of himself. Nigerians born in the late 50s and 60s can be likened to the American equivalent of the baby boomer generation. These were children born in an environment of hope, high expectations and patriotism; individuals who grew up exposed to school systems seen as being at par with others all over the world - thus thoroughly equipping them to take their destinies into their hands. It is no wonder that this generation has suffered huge frustrations and significant psychological dislocations due to the largely unforeseen upsets that they have had to contend with. The reality is that many Nigerian professionals aged 40 to 60 , lack the realism, savvy, and survival skills of some of the much younger brood of Nigerians for this reason!

For a while now, I have settled it in my mind that the primary responsibility of any government is to provide for the economic well being of its citizenry and in this context despotic governments such as those in China, Libya and Saudi Arabia may have qualified as being effective, pragmatic regimes so far. However , today, I must qualify this view - while good governments do provide for the wealth and basic wellbeing of their citizens with the key objective of minimising the incidence of those living below the accepted poverty line, truly great governments operate at a much higher level and are in fact in the business of manufacturing hope.

As a result, the measure of a government's success must not lie simply in the per capita GDP index of a nation, but also in the measure of the prevailing Hope quotient among its people. The underlying principle here is the same with individuals, which is that any nation with a deficient Hope quotient risks entropy and long term degradation. Why? Because hope is what allows great people, and in turn great civilisations, continually re-invent themselves in the context of their prevailing realities - evolving and innovating along lines which even the most visionary of leaders may have failed to predict, thus buttressing the notion that sustainable development remains largely a bottom-up process.