Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ibrahim El-Issawy

Selecting a better tomorrow

Can we determine our fortunes? Yes, writes Ibrahim El-Issawy*, with the right tools in place

Futures research is a field of inquiry which examines past and current trends and explores future tendencies as a basis for building alternative scenarios and desirable visions of the future. The intellectual activity entailed in futures research aims at shaping present decisions and behaviour so as to control the future, to a greater or lesser extent. Whether they are aware of it or not, people engage in futuristic thinking quite naturally. But, as the leading futurist Wendell Bell says, they do so only more or less well. Hence the need for tools and systematic knowledge which will enable people to envision alternative futures more deliberately and to find out the likely consequences of each alternative so that they can rationally select what appears to be a better future. Such tools and knowledge are provided by the scientific discipline variously known as futures research, futures studies, or futuring.

A LUXURY: Given this conception of futures research, can it really be considered a luxury which a developing country such as Egypt cannot afford? Futures thinking has become quite common in many developing countries. A long list of future visions for developing countries exists, including, for example, India 2020, Malaysia 2020, and China 2050. Almost all development success stories have involved futures research of one sort or another. Good development requires good planning, and the latter normally starts with a futures, or a long range perspective, study. Although education in the field of futures studies began in the US and Europe in the 1960s, some of the best futures studies programmes are now provided by universities and research centres in developing and emerging countries, eg Tamkang and Fo Guang Universities in Taiwan, the University of Kerala in India and the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico.

The development process itself has a long-term dimension. Development cannot be tackled properly by short-term measures and thinking. The long view of development, facilitated by futures research, tends to ease constraints and enlarge the range of development possibilities. Moreover, futures research and studies help developing countries to re-discover their capabilities and potentialities, re-establish self-confidence, and sharpen people's sense of purpose and direction.

Given unequal power structures and the formidable means available to the big powers to influence the direction of change in developing countries, the risks of being subjected to external pressures are greater for developing countries, especially those that occupy strategic positions in their regions or in the world. Unless such countries -- of which Egypt is a good example -- take the initiative to create their own future, ie to shape it according to the interests of their people, external powers will carry out this task for them, leading, of course, to a future serving the interests of those powers.

POOR STATE: Egypt has been lagging behind comparable developing countries in the field of futures studies. Evidence abounds. Very few future studies were produced in the second half of the 20th century. Some of these were either hastily completed or abruptly terminated for one reason or another. Some turned out to be wanting in methodological rigour and scientific depth. Very, very few were carefully evaluated or utilised in setting up development plans.

In spite of the apparent surge in futures studies since the mid-1990s, Egypt's dispiriting engagement in futures research has remained. One major study, the Third World Forum's project Egypt 2020, had to struggle to produce more than 30 publications, most of them outstanding scientific landmarks, before outstanding difficulties forced the project to close down before completing its mission. The state of Egypt's futures research has not been significantly improved by the production of four studies in the present decade, namely the 2022 vision of the Ministry of Planning, the 2015 vision of the 2005 Egypt Human Development Report, and the 2025 and 2030 visions of the Cabinet's IDSC. These studies varied greatly in scope, depth and methodological rigour, and demonstrated little if any progress in the exercise of futuring. The current five-year plan is said to be based on these studies though that remains open to question.

WEAK LINKAGES: If there is a genuine need for futures research in Egypt why has its input into planning and decision-making been so weak? Part of the answer lies in the weaknesses of future research, a relatively nascent activity in Egypt. Qualified personnel, data bases, funding, researcher discipline and institutional arrangements are all lacking, as, more importantly, is the necessary political commitment. The last two elements are crucial for the continuity of futures research, a necessary condition for its advance and for enhancing its usefulness for planning and decision- making.

Futures research suffers from neglect in Egyptian universities and research centres. A Google search of educational programmes in futures studies amply demonstrates Egypt's backwardness in this respect. Government programmes for sending Egyptian students abroad for postgraduate degrees do not include futures studies, creating a debilitating human resource gap.

Successful future studies are participatory in a double sense. First, they are a team exercise. Second, sufficient room must be allowed for popular, or stakeholders', participation in conducting future studies and in discussing their outcomes. Egypt fares badly on both counts. Team work, which is properly defined by collective effort and interaction rather than by a multiplicity of researchers, is rare in Egypt. As for popular or stakeholders' participation, its scope is constrained by the severe limits on democratic practice in Egyptian political life.

In short, neither the education and scientific research environment, nor the political climate, is conducive to serious futures research. In such circumstances social demand for future studies tends to be weak or absent.

The other part of the answer to futures research's remoteness from decision-making processes is to be found in the mind-set and attitudes of those in charge of planning. Here the government stands as a central culprit, being either disinterested in, or insufficiently enthusiastic about, futures research. Since the infitah (open door) policy was adopted in the early 1970s planning has been neglected in the belief that the market could perform its functions more efficiently. In spite of an apparent revival in planning at the beginning of Mubarak's rule, including the resumption of five-year plans, planning continued to be lax, its role in any case subordinate to that of the market. The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies (the Washington consensus/ structural adjustment package) since the early 1990s has reinforced the trend towards marginalising planning. Nothing exemplifies this trend so much as the re-naming of the Ministry of Planning. It became the Ministry of Economic Development, its status was downgraded by assigning the portfolio to a minister of state.

Economic liberalisation, privatisation and the rush to integrate into the globalised capitalist system, combined with a systematic contraction of the economic and social functions of the state, contributed to a frame of thinking in which Egypt's development and future is believed to be shaped by the policies of external powers and the interests of foreign and local businesses. In other words, no room is left for the Egyptian masses to influence their future. If this is the case, there is obviously no need to bother about futuring and planning.

OBSOLETE STRATEGY: The failure of neoliberal economic policies in enabling Egypt to achieve self sustaining development was clear before the current global economic crisis threw the consequences of these policies into such startling relief. Abundant evidence of this failure, and, indeed, of the inappropriateness of the capitalist model of development, has been documented in my book The Egyptian Economy in Thirty Years, a product of the project Egypt 2020. The global economic crisis further underlined the fragility and vulnerability of the Egyptian economy under neo-liberal capitalism, the alleged 7.2 per cent growth just before the crisis notwithstanding. Apart from occasional spells during which temporary or exceptional factors boosted growth, the long view shows that growth has lacked speed, vigour and sustainability.

Although the need for a break with the Washington consensus -- in both its old and new formulations -- has became increasingly apparent, the ruling party and its government has continued to adhere to discredited and outdated modes of development and economic management. As a consequence any break from the vicious circle of underdevelopment and dependency towards achieving sustainable development has remained as elusive as ever. If current policy trends continue it will be easy to predict the outcome: a bleak future in which underdevelopment and dependency persist.

A BETTER FUTURE: Is it a fantasy to believe that Egypt can become a developed country in three or four decades? Of course it is not, though two important provisos must be attached to this answer.

One, a deeper and more comprehensive conception of development is needed. Development means much more than rapid economic growth and equitable distribution of its fruits, though these are essential ingredients. Development must be viewed as process of human emancipation and of nation building, or transformation. Second, past development experiences need to be re-evaluated with an open mind, free from preconceived ideas and antiquated notions of development. This is a necessary condition for drawing the real lessons of successful development experiences.

Vigorous and sustainable development is not the result of magical formulae or miracles. The key engines of such development are not difficult to identify.

One key prerequisite is self confidence, freeing national decision-making from the constraints of foreign domination. A second key is self reliance, ie faith in our ability to develop by depending in the first place on our energies and capacities, particularly our human resources and domestic savings. This was what attracted foreign investment in the Asian tigers and China, not untimely appeals to foreign businesses to invest in weak and fragile economies.

The third key requires an active concept of development, one that does not confine its efforts to improving the infrastructure and facilitating private enterprise in a free market but that takes development seriously by initiating, singly and jointly with the private sector, productive investments in key industries, and opens up new avenues for technological progress. The developmental state does not wait passively for market outcomes. Its job is to "govern the market", to use the phrase coined by Robert Wade -- author of a superb study of the Asian tigers. This can be achieved by a carefully designed mix of selective incentives and protective measures, as well as by public sector investment to promote industrialisation and technological advance. Needless to say, planning is indispensable for coordinating and harmonising the development efforts of the public and private sectors in the developmental state.

A fourth key is heavy investment in education, training, scientific research and technology. This is essential for any knowledge-based economy, believed to be a vital condition for survival in the 21st century. A fifth key is that sustained growth requires a good measure of social justice and democratic participation. Poverty, concentration of income and wealth and authoritarian regimes are not only symptoms of underdevelopment, they are also enemies of sustainable progress. Finally, the sixth key to good development is patience, perseverance and a willingness to sacrifice immediate gain for the few for the future good of the majority. Clearly, the burdens of the struggle for development are more willingly borne when they are democratically agreed and equitably shared. This underlines once more the importance of equity and popular participation.

This set of keys to successful and durable development must be complemented with a future-oriented culture and a clear vision of the long-term goals and of the path leading to a more desirable future. This is where futures research comes in.

* Professor of economics, Institute of National Planning, Cairo, and was the principal investigator of Egypt 2020.

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