by Larry Smith
Why is it that in this time of turmoil, inequality, political dysfunction and apparent decline, a few countries are nonetheless thriving?
That’s the question Jonathan Tepperman asks - and answers - in his new book, The Fix. It should be required post-hurricane reading for Bahamian leaders of all stripes.
Tepperman is a Canadian journalist and scholar who currently edits the prestigious journal of international affairs, Foreign Policy.
Most writing about global issues focuses on diagnosing problems - which is important. But Tepperman says that when pundits try to prescribe what should be done, they often come up short.
“There are the honourable but vague exhortations (something must be done!). And there are the recommendations delivered in such an abstract way (citizens must rise up and demand change) that it’s hard to know what to do with them.”
This is the position Bahamians find ourselves in today. The handful of leaders we have had since independence have produced or tolerated economic stagnation, political dysfunction, spreading corruption and inequality.
Today, there is widespread despair and a realisation that we must do something to change our trajectory or we may end up as a failed state. But no-one seems to be offering the right leadership.
Tepperman says he has always craved for more explicit details on how such changes occur. In other words, how leaders around the world have solved similar existential problems.
So he began a multi-year investigation, travelling the world in search of solutions to the great problems of our day—and talking to the leaders who figured them out.
Following meticulous research and more than a hundred interviews with the people behind the policies, Tepperman wrote a book that provides “practical advice for problem solvers and stands as a necessary corrective to the handwringing and grim prognostication that dominates the news.”
And the good news is that the tools and methods he describes can work for many other sorts of problems and in many other places.
“The answers are never easy,” he says, "but they’re also never impossible, not if you are willing to work hard enough and in the right ways.”
He describes 10 fascinating examples from around the world. They range from Singapore’s elimination of corruption, to the current Mexican president’s historic reform pact with opposition parties, to South Korea’s prosperity miracle, to Rwanda’s painful coming to terms with genocide, to Brazil’s successful attack on inequality and poverty.
And all this information is boiled down to five powerful lessons.
Foremost is the application of pragmatism. As Tepperman puts it, “the dogged refusal to let party, tribe, philosophy or custom stand in the way of the search for solutions” links all of the examples in his book.
Embracing a crisis is another common theme. Necessity proved the mother of invention and made room for the solutions that followed, Tepperman says.
The crises he describes in various countries include cataclysmic civil war, the threat of national disintegration, spiralling violence, runaway economic decline and political gridlock.
“In all of these episodes the extremity of the moment played a similar role, pushing those in charge to set aside ordinary politics and conventional policymaking and think big.”
But successful policymakers also need to be careful in the way that they wield power, Tepperman says. Effective leadership requires restraint as well as boldness.
In the success stories he tells, “Compromises were broadly accepted, deals stuck, and the countries finally started to transcend the fractures that had caused them so much trouble in the past.”
Tepperman says idealists in government are ineffective and dangerous because they believe we can be trusted to do the right thing most of the time. Realists accept the truth, and therefore support checks and limits on the use of power.
Tepperman’s central rule is to make revolution through evolution. In other words, to promote progressive change by taking the high road while avoiding past mistakes.
Although he doesn’t buy the Great Man theory of history, Tepperman thinks successful leaders are made and not born. And he wonders why so many countries still struggle with the terrible problems highlighted in his book.
Perhaps the leaders in question haven’t yet found the wisdom and intestinal fortitude to do what’s necessary, he suggests. Doing so can involve considerable political risk and personal sacrifice, both of which require strength of character.
But that is what leaders are meant to provide, he concludes. It’s what we hire them for, and it’s what we need them to deliver.
In short, if you are a leader in this country, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, you should read this book, get off your butt and do something worthwhile.
•The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline is published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC in 2016. 307 pages.