Saturday, March 12, 2011

In the wake of the quake

Less than a year ago, I started suffering from knee pains and was diagnosed with what is basically weak muscles in my legs. The doctor told me that all I had to do was strengthen those muscles by doing daily exercises. I went back home excited and determined that I shall overcome this and exercise myself into well-being. So I embarked on a regiment of a 5-minute muscle strengthening exercise that I would jot into my daily calendar to make sure that I am consistent in applying it. Within a week, I started noticing an improvement. However, two weeks later, I also noticed that I was skipping days and just over 2 months after my initial diagnosis, I had completely stopped. Currently, every now and again, when my knees pains become too much to handle, I do a couple of days of exercise and think to myself "This is silly. I need to go back to doing this on a daily basis. No need to ruin my already weak knees at such a young age." But I never do.

Now, replace every "knee pain" in this story with a problem the Arab population is facing, "doctor" with "group of experts (economists, scientists, or even doctors)", "exercise" with the solution they prescribed and tell me if this isn't exactly how almost every issue is handled in our countries: Identify a problem, find a solution, start implementing, and lose steam really really quickly. Anyone who has been involved in the public sector in Jordan or Lebanon will know exactly what I'm talking about.

That's why when that 8.9 quake hit Japan yesterday, the thing that moved me the most was the country's readiness to minimize casualties and damage. Whole areas were evacuated, specifically those close to the nuclear power plants that were at risk of a meltdown. I shudder to think what would happen here if a similar catastrophe were to hit. I am certain that an emergency plan can be found somewhere in some public employee's drawer, and maybe every few years, a funding agency would arrive and provide "technical assistance" to upgrade it. But is there an institutional set-up in place to really implement it, with staff trained on a regular basis to ensure the country is ready when disaster strikes? I highly doubt it. Why? Because we get excited about drafting the plan, and then can't be bothered with the details that come after.

I'm sure all of us know people who are passinoately involved in a personal project be it rights for foreign domestic workers, fighting honor crimes, providing education for Palestinian refugees or reforming their country's political system. Have you ever met them 10 years later, asked them what they were up to, and when they mentioned the same project, didn't you think to yourself, "Seriously? Are you still on that? How boring"?

Well to those people who refuse to move on after the excitement fades, I extend my utmost respect. I strive to become like you, for you are the reason I still have hope in our future, a future in which we reward diligence and perseverance instead of superficial accomplishments.

As for the people of Japan, we watch in humility as you overcome this terrible tragedy, in the best way any human ever will. You have so much to teach us about truly being part of a community.


Khaled said...

And instead, Arab countries try to join the cool kids club by making out plans for their own nuclear power plants, thinking that building nuclear plants is a prerequisite for becoming a modern society, rather than the other way around.

Annika said...

I like the concept of your metaphor. It does have some weaknesses.
Your doctor's prescription was right and helpful, while you were the one letting it slide.
Now, in your example that would mean that the expert group's assessment is valid and the one who spoils it is the patient - the population - himself. I don't believe that is necessarily true. Yes, there are longterm commitment issue to get things done, but I think it starts with the wrong prescriptions already which oftentimes aren't created for long term benefit.

I wish there wasn't the need to think of that dusty emergency plan because the concept of nuclear power plants has been dismissed.

Anonymous said...

The problem raised is true. Another thing is - that I can say from my quite significant experience in working in development aid in Jordan - is that many things don't move until someone else from outside will not come and inspire them. From huge development projects till the tramway at the University st. It's understandable that there is not much money in Jordan, but the problem is not that - it's the initiative. Donors come with the money and the ideas how to spend them, there is very little impact from local side. Then it creates a lot of disagreement - why these people come and teach us what to do - we kind of know it better. The answer is no.

The last very good example is introducing a no flight zone over Libya - why the Arab League is asking the UN to do that - why the Arab League members just take some action and do it themselves, I am sure they are capable of doing it with some effort.

They don't want, because action creates responsibility...


Bassel said...

Hey Lama,

What you described does not only apply to you and the Arab world but is an issue that is often the reason for failure of many personal and collective projects. It is part of human nature.People loose steam when the euphoria of the initial idea is gone and when they get no positive feedback on any of their effort.

In your case you were destined to stop at some point because you haven't thought your therapy through. Because you thought you had to do daily boring exercises forever (no achievement, no positive feedback, no plan) you were destined to stop.

If you decided to train for running a marathon or take on some sport, tennis for example, then physiologically it would have been easier to stick to exercising and have healthy knees. In this way you will be getting a sense of achievement, positive feedback as you get better at whatever sport when you're doing and have fun.

As for the Arab world, this applies to but what I think we lack the most there is inspiring leadership. On that note have a look at this:

Lowfields said...

I think the metaphor is apt – and I would argue the patient isn't the population, but the government. The population are merely the cells, receiving whatever modest diet is fed them.

To Anonymous: I heard a story just this morning that shows it's not simply a local malaise. A grant was given by a foreign NGO for the construction of a education-based public building in Amman. But the money was given to a foreign consultant (no locals were shortlisted) who, six months later, had failed to deliver any meaningful work... The recipient group are now having to find local funds to complete a project that is nearly a year behind schedule.

Sometimes the prescriptions are right, but often it's the consulting physician's course of treatment that is misdirected.

Sadly, the patient, not knowing any better, is usually liable to fall for any quack with a string of dubious testimonials