Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 31 August 2014

A social covenant: The theory vs. the practice

In practice, our sensible and socially aware selves are subverted by our lazy brains. Neuroscience gives us some clues as to why, when we make plans and have the best intentions, we so often fail to take action and implement them. We see problems around us every day and we are determined to drive toward solutions, but for some reason we seem hopeless at mobilising the action needed to get the job done.

Maria Ramos, the CEO of Barclays, has written a compelling piece in which she says that South Africa needs a social covenant to overcome injustice and inequality. She refers to signs of the growing distrust of leaders and the withdrawal of citizens from participating meaningfully in policy. People have become so disillusioned, she says, that collective responsibility has been given up and that they have retreated into a situation of protecting their own individual narrow interests.

“The most divisive issue of our age,” she says, “particularly, but not exclusively, in developing economies, is the absence of a ‘just economy’. Millions of people around the world have lost the hope that the political and economic systems of governance that we have chosen can provide sustainable solutions to our biggest challenges; chief among them is rising inequality.”

She goes on to say that to address these challenges, the World Economic Forum has proposed the need for a values-based culture focusing on the dignity of each individual, the importance of a common good, and the need for stewardship. In South Africa, she says that to get us out of our present impasse, we must develop a “social covenant” that would be driven by a “coalition of the willing”. Its intention would be to restore the values of our society and to mobilise people into meaningful social participation once again.

All good stuff, and I heartily agree with her. But to be blunt, this country is not short of good plans or life-changing ideas. What we are short of is the ability to take action and to implement the plans we make. Why is this? Why are we so long on planning and so short on execution?  Is it that when we are riding our lofty selves, we agree to do difficult things, but covertly know that they will require too much heavy lifting and that we will not follow through? Or is it that even in a ‘coalition of the willing’ there is some dark force that undermines our real intentions?

People who know about these things, experts in neuroscience, tell us that our brains are lazy organs. When some new idea or system has to be implemented, it requires change. Adapting to change is threatening to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain where the working memory is located, because it uses up a lot of energy and leads to the fight-or-flight stress response. In order to avoid this discomfort, our brains revert to the use of the basal ganglia where the habit-based behaviour is located.

In short, our lazy brains sabotage our efforts to embrace change and simply guide us back to the comfort of old habits.

Coaching specialists who help people to make major changes in their lives agree that offering a solution or trying to direct someone to a new idea is not nearly as effective as allowing the individual to find the solution themselves. Because we are all different and individual, we don’t like being forced into some one-size-fits-all program of new thinking. If any social covenant would stand a chance of being successful, the plan for it would have to come, bottom-up, from the people.

The disenchantment Maria Ramos refers to is not only dissatisfaction with our institutions or our politics, but is a profound and wide-spread disappointment with our leaders. There is large-scale suspicion in all camps with the existing leadership, and even though they were voted into power, there is little trust in them. People are fed up. A social covenant designed and driven by the leadership, even those in the private sector, is bound to fail. There is just not enough goodwill to keep it energised. It has to be formulated with the participation of the whole country and its people. The failure of the e-tolling system is a perfect example of a top-down plan that has backfired. There are many others.

Even if the people are brought into the mix, the lazy brain’s reversion to old habits will only dissipate if there is a clear awareness that there is the prospect of a ‘just economy’; that people will be better off. The benefits must be visible to everyone. There is a great sense of unfairness that has to be addressed if we are ever to emerge from inequality.

Is there a workable plan for a new social covenant somewhere in the minds of the people? Is it conceivable that a country-wide initiative to build a ‘just economy’ with the participation of the media and all institutions, offering an attractive prize to a winning proposal, should mobilise a substantial response? The quest would be for some individual or group of individuals to come up with a plan to restore faith and trust in the leadership of the country and in the political and civil society institutions that sustain it. People would have to think about solutions to the problem and not just fixate on complaining about it. They would have to analyse the issues and offer a practical solution. It would have to work for everyone; instead of decrying the problems, as we do all the time, and blaming those who are in control. Engage the media to hand the challenge to the people and see how a new social covenant emerges. Could it work? DM

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