Do politicians and bureaucrats need to be creative?

While it is not a good idea for accountants to be creative with balance sheets – and that can quickly escalate into trouble for everyone – I have been reading and discussing with people, the idea that politicians and bureaucrats need to be creative. Just ‘following the rule book’ will not help us solve the intractable and complex problems before us.

One of the key areas where this creativity is needed is in re-framing the existing laws into ones that will work for all of us, including those who are vulnerable and powerless.

Uganda
Burundian refugee Larson talks with a customer at his pharmacy in Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. Photo credit : UNHCR

Dwight Waldo, one of the pioneering and original thinkers of Public Administration has argued that there is reason to believe that P.A. is more of an ‘ethical’ field than is made out to be. It is not a purely ‘scientific’ one, he has suggested. What this also means is that  that bureaucrats should not aim to run their division like a business, as there is a clear tension between efficiency and democratic governance and due process. He also examined one of the key tensions in implementing laws : that between bureaucracy and democracy.

Lets take one example, to illustrate how there is a need for greater creativity and original thinking among politicians and bureaucrats : managing forced migration and resettling refugees.

I watched this talk by  Alexander Betts, in which he points out how refugees need not be seen as a perpetual burden who either : a. need to stay  in refugee camps, which are often not helpful to long-term rehabilitation of refugees  b. Head to an urban area, where they are destitute, with no economic opportunities; as laws of the land don’t have the right to work. c. risk their lives to go to Europe, by taking dangerous journeys.

What is the problem with the current situation and laws?. In short, there are a few, as Betts argues : the old laws, written post WWII don’t work anymore. Given the realities of our globalized world, where travel is cheap, labor is in demand in Europe and there is a willingness on part of refugees to work; these laws don’t match up to the daily realities of the refugees. They need to be updated.

There are examples of creativity and originality among bureaucrats and politicians in addressing this issue. Betts points to Uganda, where the government has offered greater access to jobs for refugees and also created opportunities for them to create jobs for locals. As UNHCR reports, “Refugees have access to the same services as Ugandan nationals, have the right to work and to establish their own businesses. They enjoy freedom of movement and are given land for agricultural use, reducing dependency on humanitarian aid.”

What this means is that refugees can become an asset to the economy, helping it grow; rather than become passive recipients of aid.

This also ultimately boil down to the view of human nature one system takes, over the other. At the same time, there is the issue of politics. In the case of Syrian refugees, fear is trumping all manner of rational and other thinking. Creativity requires a calm mind, that is focused on the problem at hand. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening in the Western world.

It seems like the only solution to this quagmire would be to learn to re-learn to think without fear and prejudice. And the ones who should start this are those in power. Because, ultimately they are defining the reality, before us.

 

Creating a positive ‘identity’ for refugees?

In most media discourses, Refugees are constructed  as pathological creatures. The entire discourse of refugees and their plight is portrayed as something of a ‘problem to be fixed.’ While it is true that most refugees are in need of desperate help and do, over a short period of time, burden the economy of any host country; but research has shown – and common sense should tell us – that over a long period of time, refugees are a boon to any place where they go.

As this OpEd in NY Times points out, refugees contribute to the revitalization of economies. As a former resident of upstate NY, I saw the impact of this phenomenon. Most of the refugees settled there are independent, self-sufficient and actually quite wealthy, all in a matter of less than 20 years. That is just one generation. Bosnians fleeing the Balkan war are among the refugees who live in this region and are among the prosperous communities there.

photo credit : womenoftheworld.org
photo credit : womenoftheworld.org

Similarly, when media accounts of refugees portray them as helpless victims, who are in perpetual need of assistance, the reality is quite different. As they are fleeing persecution, they are also deeply conscious of the need to re-build their lives and are eager to take up any opportunity that comes their way. As the NYT OpEd mentioned earlier points out “A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.” This goes against our popular understandings of what refugees do, and how ‘dependent’ they are on welfare.

This bias is not only present in media discourses, but also scholarly literature on Arab-Americans in general and refugees in particular. I came across this phenomenon, as I was researching the issue for a policy brief, that I am writing, as part of my work at ACCESS. Why is this cognitive bias present? Is it because the dominant framing of refugees is set? It is set – in terms of framing them as helpless, without agency and will power? – as essentially victims who are not capable of shaping their destiny? While this is part of the story, it is not the entire story. True, they are helpless ( for the time-being) but are not without agency or will power. The Syrian refugees, for instance, are taking enormous risks, putting their lives in danger, to move to a safer area, to live and prosper. This shows not only their resilience and determination to fight against all odds, but also their imagination and ability to think outside of the box.

America should embrace this positive energy and will to live. It is what has made the U.S . a great country and it is what drives innovation and change. It is time we all re-examine the dominant narratives of the refugees as a burden and look at them for what they are – victims of circumstances, who will thrive, in the right environment. It is our duty, as decent human beings to help them find this environment.