Why must it always take a disaster to instigate change?

Why must it always take a disaster to instigate change?

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The aftermath of the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (Reuters)

At some international conferences I attended in the days before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, I would run a theme on the idea of, “Why not have the conference without the war?” The point I sought to make was that, at the conclusion of most violent conflagrations, a conference or series of them are held to agree on the solutions that should have been concluded peacefully, preventing the actual war from taking place. Learning some of the lessons of the past, not least the 20th century, would it not make sense to have such a conference when we can all see a crisis building, before some catastrophic loss of life and all its subsequent consequences? Issues surrounding the Gulf, or indeed the wider Middle East, might be a case in point. 

I return to this concept following the disaster in Beirut. This is not a piece about that incident. There are enough excellent Lebanese writers who are doing justice to those events, who have a greater right than I do to express the anger and rage that a heartbroken people are articulating over the events that have engulfed them. There will be another time for international observers to comment.

However, the events in Lebanon raise a not dissimilar question: Why do we tolerate sheer bad governance for so long, before a foreseeable and avoidable event overwhelms us and begins a process of recrimination or restructuring only after a new set of victims have been created? 

Good governance, from handling the routine to the extreme, has some common factors, which include meritocratic administrations — civil services that are both truly prestigious and industrious, not sinecures for the privileged; are empirically factually based in decision-making; are non-corrupt; and deliver non-politicized analysis and honest information to populations. The absence of any of these factors, coupled with ineffective political leadership, puts populations at risk. 

Small things, tolerated for a long time, matter. Public health rules going unobserved without official sanction, the small-scale corruption that gradually becomes a national scandal; these things, sooner or later, limit the ability of a state to safeguard its people or help them prosper. The inability to run services can move from annoyance to Venezuela in just a handful of years. This is all sufficiently serious to have been targeted by the UN as Sustainable Development Goal 16: Its definition of good governance ranging from truly participatory representative systems to rule of law and an end to corruption.

From small failures to large: The stricken oil vessel, FSO Safer, off the coast of Yemen, holds more than 1 million barrels of oil and has been effectively marooned for five years. As those responsible fail to agree a solution due to competing claims, the ship’s condition deteriorates, while the potential damage to the Red Sea of any ensuing spill is deemed to be incalculable. Despite the issue being known, the failure of local, regional and international governance to engineer a solution makes a similar outcome to Beirut all too likely. There is only one thing of which can we be sure: Those who have the capacity to give the orders to end the risk today will be the ones least impacted by any oil deluge. It will again be the livelihoods of the poorest and the voiceless that will suffer.

If you want a European example, there was the dramatic collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa in 2018, some years after safety experts had expressed concerns to authorities about its condition. An investigation has yet to conclude why they were not listened to. 

The inability to run services can move from annoyance to Venezuela in just a handful of years.

Alistair Burt

Then there is the pandemic. Whatever the ultimate cause of the COVID-19 outbreak may turn out to be, the issue of zoonotic transfer as a potential hazard has been known to governments worldwide for more than a decade. Growing populations and increased urbanization are sharpening the risks of contamination from animal to human and the release of pathogens, of which COVID-19 is likely to be at the milder end of the scale. We know about this. But is global health security ever taken seriously locally or internationally until disease strikes? And are official attacks not undermining media integrity and the trust needed in official information, as in Brazil or the US, also contributing to poor governance? 

While we discuss what went wrong, why are we not getting increasingly uneasy about what else we have been warned about and are not tackling, such as climate change? If we fail on this, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to live through endless changes similar to the shock we have just received from the pandemic, and raise justifiable anger against many governments on a scale beyond Beirut. We won’t be able to tell them we were not warned.

Good governance goes hand in hand with the better politics deserved in Lebanon and elsewhere, which would have aided Beirut yesterday, as well as countless others today and tomorrow. We need to join them in shouting about it from the rooftops.

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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