Saturday, December 25, 2010


Dec 21, 2010

Getting in the mix to fix problems

RECENTLY, when public policy don Robert Klitgaard talked to 60 students studying economic development, he asked them what it was they really cared about. Professor Klitgaard, 63, says: 'The secret is to find out what is something outside of yourself that you value for its own sake, not because it makes you rich or famous.'

The way he sees it, people pursue five purposes in life: one, doing whatever makes them happy; two, doing whatever makes others happy; three, pursuing science for truth; four, pursuing art for authenticity; and five, being spiritual. This expert on fighting corruption knows more than most about finding purpose, being a much sought-after adviser on reforming government in more than 30 developing countries.

The Harvard University alumnus has taught at, among others, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Yale University. He was president of Claremont Graduate School from 2005 to last year, when he stepped down to become a professor there.

The married father of four has written eight books, including Tropical Gangsters, which was among The New York Times' books of the century. He was here earlier this year as the second Li Ka Shing Professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School
of Public Policy. I asked him then why he has spent much of his life working in some of the world's most dangerous places:

  • How did you decide that testing theory by going out into the field was the best way to approach your work?

    That's a good question. I have a tendency to be pretty happy with what I'm doing wherever I am and that leads to a certain superficiality. So if I'm going to take on a really hard problem, I'm going to go suffer through it and live somewhere (where this problem exists). What that does is put me in contact with real examples. By putting yourself right in the face of these problems, you get your examples. Then you start asking: 'How could that be? Has anybody succeeded in solving it?' That's how you get going.

  • But do you know you are on the right track?

    If I were advising a Singaporean professor or a young person here to think about the problems he has, I would say it's not either/or, theory or practice. It's about identifying live examples or ways to develop theory - and it's hard to look at live examples without theoretical frameworks. But there's a cost to that.

  • Is there such a thing as a more likely solution for certain places and not others?

    It's a very profound question. My view is that the two extreme ideas (on this) are both popular and both wrong. One is that if something works in, say, France, it will work in Chad. The other is that nothing that works in France will ever work in Chad. Actually, it's a spectrum.

    How you run an airport or a brewery is all pretty standard. But when you get towards running a family-planning programme or a political campaign, you're now veering towards the idiosyncratic.

    The interesting question is: 'How can you help people be inspired by examples from other places?' There's a certain pedagogy here, which is to be very humble in the sense that nobody pretends to know more than the other person about their place. Then you bring in the telling examples and theoretical frameworks for what their problem is like. The first thing they'd say is: 'You know, Chad is not the same as France.' And you'd say: 'That's true.' Then the second thing they'd say is: 'But isn't it interesting how they defined a problem, how they looked at the alternatives, how they assessed the evidence, how they started with thisand not with that? What do you think about that?' And everybody goes: 'Yeah, I wonder how we'd solve the problem? How we'd define the sequence? What should we do first?' In other words, they get the idea that there's a problem that can be solved here, and not just lament. And then they get some strategy about the problem-solving approach, and everybody gets inspiration.

  • But how do you get them solving their own problems?

    I like to show it in two parts. Part A is where I describe the situation: You've just taken over as president of Colombia. It's 1998, the country is a mess, you've got guerillas, the highest murder rate in the world and you're No. 50 out of 52 countries ranked in corruption. What do you do? And everybody goes, 'Oh!'

    And Part B is making them work on the problem. It's Colombia, not their country, so they're all going 'Whoa, whoa!' and projecting their own country onto Colombia. Then they come back and lay out some alternatives and think about what they did and I show them what they actually did, that there were some things they did that worked.

    And then the first thing they say to that is, 'Well, it's different here (in our own country)'. And the second thing they say is, 'Well, you know, it's interesting. How could we do that (for our country)?' So (parts A and B) are a little trick to stimulate their creativity.

  • What have you found are the hardest problems to solve?

    Technical problems such as how to run a brewery are very standard production processes, and if a country hasn't picked those up yet, it's either because of ignorance or poverty. The hardest problems are where there are all kinds of pressures not to do the right things because of vested interests or ethnic, racial, religious or regional inequalities. There is a third kind of pressure that I'm really interested in and this is like the alcoholic who falls off a wagon, or the anti-malaria
    programme in Ecuador that has eradicated malaria four times - which means Ecuadorans eradicated it but they didn't persist in doing so...

    There's a paradox about human beings in that we know we shouldn't be alcoholics, we should get rid of malaria and we should be good people. And yet we continue to backslide. Studies of addiction tell us it's all about managing the cues - from elements that entice one back to addiction, such as peer pressure or conducive surroundings - to avoid backsliding.

  • But isn't backsliding just human nature?

  • If I ask in general why Country Z has quite a bit of corruption, most people would say three things. The first is that the way of life of these people is screwed up, they're basically immoral, there's too much democracy, too little democracy and a whole other bunch of macro-societal theories, and so we have this grand dialogue about political culture.

    The second view is that people are greedy. Individuals are sinful and if they'd only be good, we wouldn't have this problem. Which is true, but we don't quite know yet how to engineer people to be good.

    And the third view, which I hold, is to take this problem with as much coolness and lack of premature conclusions as we can. If I'm giving or taking a bribe, I'm thinking of risks and rewards. So what are the structures that create risks and rewards for us to reject corruption? And which ones don't? Now, when you ask that question, you get to things like: 'What's the pay scale in this country for a middle-level official? What does a minister make? What are the penalties if (the corrupt) get caught?' In many countries, the penalty is an admonition.

  • You can see the different approaches and you might say: 'You'd have to change the culture.' Another might say: 'You need a complete change of politics.' My view is: Maybe we can do some things that would open spaces for more failure, reward more for being creative, would give
    information about what's going on.

  • Eyes open for beauty

    PUBLIC policy don Robert Klitgaard wears his learning very lightly, despite having roughed it out in more than 30 developing countries to help them improve their lot. Here he is on:


    'I'm so astonished to see such a knowledge-based society. There are few places in the world where the mind is the primary emphasis of government policy and the future is seen in terms of leapfrogging other countries at the highest end of intellectual achievement.'

    Singapore as an anti-corruption model

    'Look at your people, your pay scales, your oversight systems, the ways you get information about what's going on. Once you get (such) a virtuous circle, it's self-reinforcing.'

    Whether Singaporeans are too restrained to be creative

    'Friedrich Nietzsche said the idea of romantic love did not occur until virginity was emphasised, and that the sonnet is one of the most beautiful forms of poetry because it's so constrained. So maybe it's not true that Singaporeans can't be creative because they are too shy or

    The limits of constrained creativity

    'Clearly, you can be at Guantanamo Bay and not be very creative. So you wouldn't want to take this idea too far.'

    What makes him creative

    'I go to places that make me uncomfortable - Southern Sudan has no Hyatt Hotel - and where my set of ideas don't work.'

    How he approaches a problem

    'What's it like? Is it a member of a family of problems that may not even look like it? Are there examples of success in solving it and what has that changed?'

    How he approaches life

    'I could be perfectly happy doing 12 different things.'

    What anchors him

    'If you have your eyes open for beauty and humour and your ears open for music, you can feel at home almost anywhere.'


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