To plan or not to plan – that is the question.

“Long term planning” is a dreary word in my dictionary. I have always loathed thinking about what my life / the world will look like in 5 yrs time. The very idea of a “five year plan” conjures up images of India’s socialist misadventures, which led to a country trapped in a time-warp; to be freed finally in 1991 with market led reforms.For those who arent aware of this phase of  India’s politico-economic history, i would suggest meeting me for a discussion.

The economics and politics of that period of time aside, i would like to mull over the very idea of long-term planning in  our world, in the year 2011.  This year will perhaps stand out in our collective memory for several reasons – the Tsunami in Japan, the very many revolutions in the Arab world and perhaps one or two more dramatic events which will unfold in the months to come.

The pace at which our world is changing begs the question : Does “planning” have any significance in today’s world ?

Though i can be a bit of a control freak when it comes to travel, organising events, my world-view has been challenged of late.  In particular, when looking at events in the Arab world, all the wisdom, the gyan and punditry that the intellectuals, scholars and journalists spouted all along has come to naught.

Who could have imagined that Hosni Mubarak would be ousted or that Gaddafi would be seriously challenged ? What would the planners and strategists for several multi-national firms be thinking now, after drawing up their fancy projections for years ahead, and realising that all of it has failed. They will have to start from scratch. And where will their numbers come from ? Where will they start from ? The very base of their projections has  shifted.

A crisis can shift our world entirely. And sometimes permanently. So, does planning have any relevance in such a context ?

During my recent trip to India, my older brother, who works for an IT firm told me that “India is where the action is”. I agree with him to a large extent. But it is also a country that is famous for not planning. Bangalore, the IT capital of the country, and my hometown is famous for its terrible roads and a metro which is being built now, as i write this post. French town planners were hired by the Bangalore Development Authority to do town planning, and in one such presentation that i attended several years ago, i recall hearing the planner complaining that they were being asked to do what the city should have done a good 30 years ago.The Brits did leave with an unfinished task – of teaching the natives how to plan for the future.

What is happening in many parts the city is crisis management, not planning. A road built here, a building demolished there. A city and country coming to terms with itself and its mighty ambition of taking over the world and becoming a “super-power”.

This “development” can be seen as a crisis of sorts. A crisis of identity, or managing expectations and aspirations. And  by the very nature, crisis keep morphing into something new every few weeks/ months.

By this logic, is the new long-term horizon a year, or perhaps 6 months ?

Non-hierarchical news gathering the new wave sweeping journalism ?

In an interesting discussion, which brought together the stalwarts of journalism in Washington DC, as well as some member of other new media, several issues were discussed – including, but not limited to the Arab “social media revolutions”, the democratisation of news across the Middle East and also questions of access. The keynote speaker at the event, organised by Washington DC based International Center for Journalists was Riz Khan, the celebrity anchor at Al-Jazeera, the news network, which has caught everyone’s imagination.

Khan started off by saying that one of the keys to the success of Al-Jazeera has been its presence on ground in all the Arab countries where revolutions have taken place, and also to be open to non-traditional means of news gathering and also being open to ideas from the public. “This is the democratization of media. There is a batte of the Old school vs new school going on as far as i can see. We are faced with questions such as, whether blogging a valid way of gathering news. This idea has driven what has happened in the Middle East,” he pointed out.

I reproduce some of the questions and answers that were part of the discussion. The participants include, Riz khan, Mona Eltahawy, well-known blogger and Jeff Ghanem, media commentator.

Q : What is the twitter revolution, does it deserve the attention that it is getting ?

Riz : If it hadn’t been for the mechanisms, i don’t think the traditional media would have caught onto the dynamic on the ground. For sure, the social media added momentum to the whole process.

Mona : Twitter, FB were essential, and one of many tools in changing the consciousness of young people, who were the dissidents. By this, I mean, a platform to vent out their frustrations. The youth realised that they count, and their lives had value and they could make a change. This was the reaction on the Arab street. Social media didn’t invent courage. For decades, they were trying to do this, but it was social media  that connected all these people.
Jeff : I find that by calling it a Facebook ( FB)  and twitter revolution, we must look at the motivations of the people. You cant credit FB . Would these have succeeded ? Yes, because  of demographics, courage. The MENA region is made of vast number of marginalized, disposed young people. 50% of the entire population of some of the countries is  youth.

Natasha : Citizen journalists should get credit here.  I disagree with many of the points here. I will give credit to the Social media. Let me quote a personal anecdote as an example. In 1991, during the First Gulf war, there were rumors that Saddam’s pic was on the moon. We all believed it. Facts were not checked and corrected. And i remember that in school, people talked about it all the time.

Tunisian veg. seller- inspired the whole revolution in many respects. International pressure caused the whole movement to take the form and shape that it did. Actually, we must give more credit to them.

Q: Is this the age, where there will be an over-flow of info, and that it will be self-correcting?

Riz : I think information flow is much easier these days and there is  less hierarchy. In the old days, when i worked at BBC, balance was important. How interviews were supposed to be conducted was clearly defined. It is a bit different these days, with more horizontal modes of information flow. I believe there is a self-correcting mechanism in social media. If someone posts something incorrect on their Facebook, someone would correct them in no time.

Natasha : I believe some journalists also made big mistakes during the entire period. They took sides and did not report. They did their own commentaries.

Riz khan : It is funny that each era has its own challenges and i am faced with similar questions. During my stint at BBC, I had to defend the  BBC –it was seen as a British imperial project.  I think journos should leave their opinion out. The trouble is, channels have become very commentary based. Al-Jazeera tries to balance opinion, but provides a very clear Middle Eastern perspective to issues, which is fresh and original.

The panel went on to discuss issues related to the image of Muslims across the world and how the Arab revolutions may change it. While many of the speakers agreed that this was not about Islam, nor about Israel or about the USA, the mood was clearly that of Arab solidarity and one of the emergence of a new intellectual discourse in the Middle East. A new language has to be invented to talk about the Middle East these days, Mona pointed out.

The discussion ended on a high note, with a reception, attended by well over 300 people. Among those present, included the veteran journalist Helen Thomas.