From early childhood, Arabs have always been fond of “planning”, or at least the concept of planning as they understand it. Adults have always taken children by surprise, asking them the notorious question “What do you want to become when you grow up?” The answer is usually simple and innocent, when the child says “I want to become a doctor, or an officer, or an engineer.” This is a safe, traditional answer, and no-one is offended. Yet, there is cause for concern when the answer is as shocking as what happened to a friend of mine, when visiting the British capital London, in the company of his son for the first time. They took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, and the little boy was amazed by the experience, the clean taxi with its unique design, and the driver’s cabin being equipped with a microphone. Since then, whenever he is asked about what he wants to become when he grows up, the child jumps in the air screaming “I want to be a taxi driver.” Of course, his father blushes from embarrassment, and tries his best to silence him! I have reflected upon this minor experience and its symbolism, and compared it to the role of the Ministries of Planning in the Arab world.
‘Planning’ is an impressive word, yet in truth is that it is a meaningless expression which produces no results. Taken in its broad context, planning was originally the product of totalitarian regimes. They conceived that the state should plan and make arrangements for every detail of the lives of their population. This approach was followed by communist parties in China, Cuba and North Korea, and was also adopted by socialist countries in the Third World, where we saw its emergence in Egypt during the sixties in particular. However, Ministries of Planning have completely distanced themselves from the people’s needs, and have become devoted only to the needs of their governments, thus undermining the trust and credibility between citizens and administrative bodies. It is for this reason that people do not consider the five-year or annual plans – issued by the Ministries of Planning and along with other ministries – as something that is worth serious consideration. Today, most ministries do not plan in the ‘macro’ context; rather they care for trivial ‘micros’. In most cases, they are merely ‘reactionists’; acting only out of reaction to a problem or crisis, thus exaggerating the effectiveness and efficiency of these ministries. In this endeavour, Ministries of Planning rely heavily on a policy of absolute denial [of accountability], and accusing “others” and “enemies” of publishing “rumours, fabrications and lies”. This is followed by a second wave, in which the ministries “play down” the gravity of the situation, so as to absorb the discontent amongst the public, as well as amongst the leadership. This is usually followed by a series of meetings, statements and administrative measures, until people feel bored, and the entire issue is dismissed until a new crisis emerges.
Even today, no one knows the reason why five years has been decided as the criteria by which plans are judged (for instance, why not a seven-year or a ten-year plan?). For example, Nissan, the giant Japanese car manufacturer, draws up its plans over 50 years. There has been a considerable controversy with regards to assessing the success of planning years. However, it is widely known that reducing the state’s size, as a bureaucratic body, and replacing it’s [five year plans] with simple two-year visions or projects, leaving details to be decided by well qualified cadres – rather than those who are selected by means of favouritism and regardless of whether or not they are trustworthy – would guarantee the success of small projects and medium-size objectives. These minor details would gradually piece together a bright and hopeful picture, for any successful national entity.
Such an administrative change in the thought and culture of government institutions, which have always made the future of the state conditional upon the “plans” and “projects” of the Ministries of Planning, will make it easier to hold executives to account, in a more accurate manner. This is because responsibility would be devolved directly without the interference of third parties, parties which have nothing to do with the implementation of the project. If the project were to fail, responsibility would be placed on the correct party by simply saying “the idea and the theory were wrong, and hence the application was also wrong”.
The role of the Ministry of Planning, as everyone knows, has become obsolete, and it now should be absorbed completely within the ministries themselves. Each ministry should be responsible for planning and implementing major visions, with parliamentary assemblies acting as observers, to undertake the discussion and assessment of performance, together with cautious, objective and professional media. This type of solution could restore the lost confidence between citizens and governments, for it would remove the unsightly buffer that lies between citizens and the government. This buffer achieves no useful goal; rather it produces more confusion, bureaucracy and exhausting red tape. Many Third World countries and emerging markets took the initiative by abolishing their Ministries of Planning, as they are conscious that it has become an outdated and unconvincing model.
But it seems that the dream of my friend’s son, to be a taxi driver in London, is easier than fulfilling these major administrative changes. Yet dreams are possible anyhow.