MENA region enjoys less academic freedom

MENA region enjoys less academic freedom

The MENA region enjoys less academic freedom and it was copiously reported here and there. The countries students’ limitations in academic research study fields ranging from architecture to filmmaking were known for some time. The comparatively limitless European and American universities atmospheres were as always unattainable in terms of openings or ease of integration. Al Fanar Media produced this article by Burton Bollag to confirm that the MENA region enjoys less academic freedom, highlighting the centrally related and common freedom of speech and thoughts problematics. 

Arab Region Scores Lowest in the World for Academic Freedom

16 Mar 2021

MENA region enjoys less academic freedom
The Academic Freedom Index paints a troubling picture of the state of academic freedom in the Arab world. Most Arab countries ranked in the report’s two lowest categories, those with the most severe restrictions (Illustration: Shutterstock).

Scholars and students in the Arab region enjoy less academic freedom than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, the second annual Academic Freedom Index 2020 found.

“If you compare world regions, the MENA region scores worse than others,” said Ilyas Saliba, a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute, in Berlin, and one of the report’s authors.

He was speaking at a virtual news conference to launch the report on March 11.

“There are a few bright spots, like Tunisia,” he said. A guarantee of academic freedom was included in the country’s rewritten 2014 constitution, making Tunisia the only Arab country to enshrine that right in its basic law. 

But overall, the situation in the Arab region is deeply troubling.

The index assesses academic freedom in 175 countries and territories worldwide, placing each in a category going from A, indicating complete freedom of research and teaching, to E, indicating the least academic freedom.

High Marks for Tunisia

Tunisia is the only Arab country in Category A. Category B, indicating a few restrictions, includes Lebanon, the West Bank and the Comoros. Category C, indicating moderate restrictions, includes Kuwait, Libya, Gaza, Morocco, Somalia and Sudan.

The majority of the Arab countries are in Category D or E, indicating severe or complete restrictions, and university teachers and students in those countries face expulsion, jail, or worse if they carry out unwelcome research or express views unpopular with the authorities. 

This is the second yearly installment of the Academic Freedom Index. The project was jointly developed by researchers from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, working in close cooperation with the Scholars at Risk Network, based at New York University.

“In the longer term we could still see a more drastic impact. For example: self-censorship in digital teaching.”

Katrin Kinzelbach  A professor at Germany’s Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and one of the report’s authors

The index is compiled from five indicators: (1) freedom to research and teach, (2) freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, (3) institutional autonomy, (4) campus integrity, and (5) freedom of academic and cultural expression. The indicators are assessed by some 2,000 experts, typically academics in the countries being evaluated.

The index can be explored with a powerful graphing visualization tool that can show academic freedom trends over time within a single country or a region.

Particularly sharp deterioration in academic freedom has taken place in Egypt, especially after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, and in Turkey after the failed 2016 coup. 

Many campuses have been closed during the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The impact on academic freedom appears less than was feared, the report’s authors say, but the potential for surveillance of online education is troubling.

Self-Censorship Concerns

“In the longer term we could still see a more drastic impact,” said Katrin Kinzelbach, a professor at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and one of the report’s authors. “For example: self-censorship in digital teaching.”

Globally, the index finds that from 2019 to 2020, the countries that experienced the largest declines in academic freedom were Belarus, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Zambia.

Countries experiencing the largest decline in academic freedom over the past five years were: Brazil, Colombia, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, Turkey and Zambia.

Countries that experienced the largest improvement in academic freedom over the past five years were: Gambia, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, North Macedonia and Sudan.

Universities in the oil-rich Gulf states “are modern and engage in international partnerships. But it is in the context of particularly brutal repression of any forms of dissent,” both on and off campuses.

Laurie A. Brand  A professor at the University of Southern California

Still, said report co-author Kinzelbach, “overall we found that only about 20 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where academic freedom is well protected.”

Does a lack of academic freedom really matter? The report argues that it does. “Academic freedom is essential to top-quality teaching and research, which are themselves essential to national competitiveness in a global knowledge economy.”

Which is why the report’s authors argue that the index’s country scores should be used to improve established university rankings. “At present,” the report says, “leading rankings narrowly define academic excellence and reputation as a function of outputs. … They thereby mislead key stakeholders and make it possible for repressive state and higher education authorities to restrict academic freedom without incurring a reputational loss.”

In an essay titled “Why University Rankings Must Include Academic Freedom,” published in University World News, the authors state, “Prior to 2020, ranking companies might have been forgiven for not including academic freedom in their systems. No longer.”

A lack of academic freedom is often associated with countries in conflict, such as Syria, which has one of the lowest ratings in the index. Yet the index presents some surprises. Libya, for example, which is mired in a civil war between two competing governments, ranks in the C, or middle, category.

At the same time, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, three affluent and rapidly modernizing Gulf states, are in Category E, the lowest level.

“It’s paradoxical,” comments Laurie A. Brand, a professor at the University of Southern California and chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom. Universities in those oil-rich Gulf states “are modern and engage in international partnerships. But it is in the context of particularly brutal repression of any forms of dissent,” both on and off campuses. 

Colluding With the Corrupters

Colluding With the Corrupters

Michael Young in an interview, with David Linfield who argues that international donors are benefiting existing power structures in the Middle East. It is all about Colluding With the Corrupters.

Preamble

Corruption spread deep and for some time in the MENA region with social, political, and economic implications, but with differing penetrations rates. All because the area can divide into two types of governance. The autocratic monarchies live with side by side with the so-called republics. Few of these latter countries know a higher degree of corruption than the first-mentioned countries. In any case, all have made the fight against corruption a priority by passing laws and adopting strategies to combat crime. But in vain.
Colluding with the Corrupters could quickly summarise a situation where such deviant behavioural attitudes originators can be traced back out of the region.

  • January 29, 2021
Colluding With the Corrupters

David Linfield is a visiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is on sabbatical from the U.S. Department of State, where he is a career foreign service officer. Linfield recently wrote a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” In mid-January, Diwan interviewed him to discuss his article, and more generally to examine the anti-elite feeling that has permeated protests throughout the Middle East in the past year, notably in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield are his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Michael Young (MY): You’ve just written a commentary for Carnegie, titled “International Donors Are Complicit in Middle Eastern Elites’ Game.” What is your argument in the piece?

David Linfield (DL): My argument is that the United States and other international donors have put significant clout and resources behind promoting economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have been hesitant to put similar emphasis on political reforms. By political reforms I mean boosting transparency, combating corruption, and empowering elected officials. International actors have partly justified this approach by suggesting that economic reforms are a better way of promoting stability and less risky than political changes. But I contend that recent events in the region suggest that these policies are making violent, sudden change in the region more likely, not less so.

When adopted in the context of authoritarian political systems, economic reforms such as privatization have tended to benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and citizen-state tensions. The World Inequality Database now ranks the Middle East as the most unequal region in the world. While economic inequality has decreased worldwide since the 1990s, it has remained constant in the Middle East.

By supporting policies that have inadvertently led to such entrenched inequality, while neglecting political reforms, international donors have contributed to citizens’ frustrations with their relative economic status while leaving them without peaceful institutional means of expressing their grievances. This is all a recipe for instability, which is the opposite of what donors want.

MY: You write that “[e]merging solidarity among previously competing groups, grounded in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing resentment of elites in the Middle East. Are you suggesting, to borrow from Marxist jargon, that we are seeing the emergence of a sort of class consciousness in certain countries that may have revolutionary potential?

DL: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. Whereas previous demonstrations in the region tended to consist of a homogeneous ethnic group—whether from a particular religious sect, region, or group of tribes—these recent protests have been more diverse.

Common frustrations with inequality appear to have led people from lower-income communities to demonstrate in common cause—albeit sporadically and tentatively—against what they see as a corrupt and multisectarian elite that has failed them. We have seen this happen most explicitly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Some of the slogans used in recent protests in these countries do indicate the emergence of class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in summer 2020, they framed their plight as a class struggle against those who had “looted the country.” The 2019 Lebanese protests included slogans like “down with the rule of the thieves.” Iraqi protestors in 2019 and 2020 told media outlets that their struggle was about taking the country back from “thieves.”

MY: In light of your assessment, how have the traditional fault lines among Middle Eastern populations that regimes have manipulated to retain power—things such as sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions—fared in what you describe as a changing environment?

DL: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very much present. Emerging class-based tensions have not fully supplanted preexisting divisions based on ethnicity, religion, and tribalism, but rather now coexist alongside them more than before. That said, the trendlines I described earlier suggest that class-based divisions will continue to grow in relative importance and have the potential to reshape existing political alliances and divisions.

In addition to the demonstrations I mentioned earlier, another indicator of the power of class solidarity is a 2019 experiment by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. The study, which assigned hundreds of Lebanese people into different conversation groups having varying compositions based on sect and class, found that when Lebanese people gathered with other members of the same class, they exhibited markedly less support for sectarian politics.

It’s too early to craft a comprehensive assessment of how emerging class-based tensions will interact with longer-standing societal divisions in the Middle East. One reason that we’ll have to observe for a longer period is that Covid-19 shifted the focus dramatically from political and economic challenges to the health crisis. But given that the pandemic exacerbated economic inequality, with lower-income communities bearing the brunt of related economic disruptions, we probably won’t have to wait long before class discussions reemerge.

MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has reinforced elites, what are you recommending as an alternative approach by Western donors? And what makes you think that such an approach would have any chance of working?

DL: The alternative approach I’m recommending is for international donors to incorporate measures to promote transparency and combat corruption into existing economic liberalization efforts. These political reforms are also good for business and economic growth—as noted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank reports I cite in my article. The IMF’s recent insistence that Lebanon address corruption before receiving additional loans is a positive step to putting teeth behind their analysis.

Other helpful steps would include pushing to empower the many weak legislatures across the region beyond their current rubber-stamp roles, which would provide an alternative to protests for frustrated publics. If international donors put the same clout behind good governance that they have behind economic liberalization, they’ll make peaceful and durable progress more likely in the Middle East.

MY: Are you not reading too much into anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, states in the region have shown that they will resort to violence in order to survive and societies have often gone back to being silent. Why will this change?

DL: Ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are willing to go to extreme measures to maintain their benefits. I am not suggesting that elites will somehow decide that they should altruistically begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, as your question implies, I am arguing that the elite behavior of concentrating power and resources is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately foment violence and harm everyone’s interests, including those of the elite.

Autocratic regimes tend to resort to violence when they feel they have run out of other options, but rely more often on nonviolent coercion and intimidation to maintain daily control. By the time regimes turn to violence, it tends to be a prelude to their loss of control—or a stage where they are nearing that.

The strategy of international donors focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in bolstering stability and strengthening citizen-state relations. Instead, the policy has exacerbated class-based tensions and increased the prospects of unrest.

These trends are not linear: demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. Ruling elites remain intent on doing everything they can to outmaneuver these latest challenges to their vested interests. Longer-standing societal tensions based on sect, region, and tribe also continue to simmer and remain exploitable by elites. But the overall direction of the region is still toward economic liberalization in the midst of authoritarian entrenchment. As long as that remains the case anti-elite solidarity is likely to build. International donors are inadvertently contributing to these increasing citizen-state tensions. Instead, they could be fostering more durable change that would make the region more stable and prosperous for everyone.


Corruption and Predation in Exercising Power

Corruption and Predation in Exercising Power

Corruption and Predation in Exercising Power: Algeria and Iraq as Case Studies by Nahla Chahal, Professor and researcher of political Sociology, Editor in Chief, Assafir Al Arabi.


All throughout 2020, Assafir al Arabi conducted a study on corruption as one of the pillars of power, just as important as repression, impoverishment, and despair.
For such exercise, we chose Algeria and Iraq as case studies, hoping to extend our research to include other countries.
This work will appear in the Books of Assafir al Arabi in three languages, Arabic, French, and English, and their online versions.


Ahmed Al Soudani – Iraq

The following studies seek to examine corruption in Algeria and Iraq. They do not tackle its manifestation as bribes or looted public funds, but rather as a major governance mechanism, an essential part of its structure and operations.

Corruption is no self-treatable symptom; it cannot cure itself nor can its tailored arrangements; rather, it is channelled to empower a ruler(s), to sustain and perpetuate their power and hegemony. It could be more effective than oppression; takes on various shapes and forms; attacks society by taming it into submission, talks people out of pursuing change, and impoverishes them.

Corruption infests everything and partners with many people to various extents. Alternately, it asks for their complicity, or their acceptance thereof, at the very least, to simplify their lives. It remunerates certain social strata in particular, which happen to be fused with the ruling powers, for matching ideological considerations at times, and tribal-sectarian affiliations at others.

Numerous studies tackle corruption as a question indicative of imprudent governance, lack of transparency, collapsed mechanisms of oversight and accountability, or faded rule of law. The question of corruption has been widely contextualised in theory and through international standards outlined by organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Transparency International. Those focused on nepotism, theft, and lining influential people’s pockets; they proposed measures to protect whistle blowers, enhanced access to information, made way for civil society, and instilled social accountability; all of which have contributed to the creation of an extensive useful database.

But to focus on those alone would be limiting, as they capture neither dynamics nor functions of corruption. Certainly, all such aspects of corruption must be interconnected somehow, given meaning and rendered a real “configuration”. The studies presented here precisely seek to examine such hypothesis and identify the circumstances that make corruption flourish.

There is, of course, a direct relationship between rampant corruption and failed national liberation –or its defeat– for getting rid of older colonialism is no complete realisation of that end – liberation. Massive privatisations also accompanied such failure and opened up new doors for corruption.
Furthermore, real decision-making mechanisms may be seen hiding behind decision-making formalities, whether in ministerial cabinets or parliamentary buildings. Interchangeably, it hides behind decrees. Namely, corrupt practices take legal cover.

In his paper on Algeria, “Corruption as a Configuration of Power,” Daho Djerbal (1)  argues that corruption is deemed institutionalised not only when widespread, but also when organised on the basis of socio-economic clientelist networks entrenched within the State apparatus, then disseminated into society through alternating intermediaries. It emerged fiercest, he says, when the State monopolised economy – in both capitalist and socialist paradigms.

Corruption is a configuration of economic rent which began as a system of economic and political regulation, whereby relations between State and its institutions, enterprises and their partners, civil society and its organisations, are all subject, by hook or crook, to rent-seeking logic instated to allocate all national resources (human, natural, financial, technical, and organisational), develop them, and distribute their generated revenues. Corruption thus became a “rite of passage” to accessing numerous public services.

As for decrees, Djerbal considers them as means for elected assemblies and democratically appointed authorities to avoid discussing major topics at hand. Those are tools invented to ensure wider reproduction of this system of new profits, to render the executive branch as sole party in charge of economic evaluation, and to arbitrage between conflicted interests for the sake of increasing revenues and systematise their redistribution. He also considers corruption and democracy as interlinked. As such, the emergence of “pragmatic practices” assumed by the authorities rely on a system of “remunerations, gift exchange, the fragmentation of spheres, places, and actors who determine what is legal and illegal, moral and immoral, legitimate and illegitimate…”

To illustrate his reflections, he gives a number of real-life examples from Algeria and analyses exposed “scandals”, the logic behind their trials, and the verdicts reached against their protagonists.

In investigating corruption in Algeria, Rachid Sidi Boumedine (2)  wonders about what could be defined as corruption. He notes that one culturally distinguishes between corruption and bribes, commonly called “tchippa” or “qahwa,” that is, money ordinary citizens pay to buy access to services (mundane, occasionally) or any other goods, though already granted by virtue of law.
One feature of a clientelist system is embodied in excessive authorised violations, starting from the highest ranks of the hierarchy, which simultaneously places the lower ranks at the mercy of executive circles, who could, in turn, punish the former for violation of the written law, if there need be.

Boumedine also notes how rentier networks function “internally”, like a clan (a family, village, affiliated community). As such, familiar arrangements of gift-exchange and mutual donations -characterised by their binding and impactful nature- create a favoured system of rights and obligations in society. Such principles consolidate a clientelist system by creating, nourishing, and sustaining reciprocal obligations among its members. He also claims that the system in Algeria has become neo-patrimonial.

This configuration of looting and corruption thus draws upon social acceptance for sustenance. As such, at least in part, it is not considered as theft carried out at the expense of the larger public.
Such ideological design –which legitimises looting, whereby the latter is an act directed against an anonymous, undefined, long-hated state after all– thus becomes a gateway to a new social paradigm. He illustrates the question through describing those recurring handouts to the “poor”, or housing opportunities delivered in accordance with ever-contested lists – fashioned along surreptitious criteria. These operations further plunge their beneficiaries into that recognised mire of a clearly unjust system. It is a system that benefits whoever knows their way around maintaining good relations with network agents, ensuring access to those lists.

In their cowritten article reviewed by writer Omar Aljaffal (3), researchers Mohsin Ahmad Ali (4) and Abdul Rahman Al-Mashhadani (5)  consider how the 2003 US occupation of Iraq –which toppled the political regime, dismantled the foundations of the state, reformulating them in accordance with US visions and under the administration of the “American civil governor of Iraq”, Paul Bremer– resulted in the transformation of corruption from a manageable and resistible phenomenon into a system protected by laws and legislations. It was thus turned into a daily practice protected by force of weapons, media, platforms, and religious fatwas.

The writers see the destruction of the public sector in the monopolisation of secure jobs by the ruling power and its parties. Those jobs are thus used as a card to purchase voter power in parliamentarian elections, whereby parties promise their supporters and clans jobs in return for their electoral vote. Subsequently, the number of government employees would reach 4.5 million, as opposed to 880 thousand employees in 2003. The two researchers claim that corruption developed and transformed into an “acceptable” social phenomenon after 2003, accompanied by a political shift towards a market economy led by political parties that landed with the occupier and/or emerged after 2003. Those parties have sectarian and racist agendas. Those parties ratified regulations and laws that furthered their interests, such as the “Jihad military service” – for people who had established organisations of armed resistance against Saddam Hussein’s regime and for “political prisoners”. As such, we do not stand before one type of corruption only (which manifests in bribery, among other illegal activity), but also before corruption protected by a legal framework that includes a larger range of different economic activities, subsequently rendering the country’s riches into material up for grabs to those in power and control, inside and outside Iraq. Between 2003 and 2018, financial crimes hit unprecedented records while financial waste surpassed $350 billion. The two researchers also affirm a close connection between intensified and aggravated corruption and external factors that instigate and encourage it. Many cases of corruption are thus entwined with external objectives abroad. Their article tackles manifestations of corruption throughout Iraq and its sectors, as well as those tools used by the ruling power to perpetuate its rule and those it uses to appease society.

Overall, research on corruption faces various challenges, some of which are obstructive indeed. Those include lack of published data, prohibited access to documents, lack of documentation in the first place, mistrust in researchers, and the potential harm that threatens the latter should their research be published. Additionally, research faces challenges that pertain to researchers themselves, from sticking to one familiar methodology they are prone to reproduce, to the scarcity of institutions capable of embracing and supporting them, or lack thereof, to competing over whatever little is available, all the way to declining intellectual standards and knowledge in general, and so on.

Ultimately, the endeavour we undertake here goes with an unexhausted obsession with searching and trying. It questions the way existing powers rule our countries. Along with the contributing researchers, Assafir Al-Arabi thus hopes to have tackled some of the aspects that could answer such a fundamental question.

****

Translated from Arabic by Yasmine el Haj

______________

1- Daho Djerbal is a historian. He teaches contemporary history at the University of Algiers 2. Besides his extensive research on economic and social history, he studies the relationship between history and memory. He has been the director of Naqd publication, a review of social studies and critique, since 1993.
2- Rachid Sidi Boumediene is both scientist and sociologist. He published a number of books and articles throughout his career as academic and consultant in both Algeria and abroad.
3- Iraqi poet and writer. He recently worked on a project that analysed Basrah’s local government in Iraq, as part of a “conflict resolution studies program” at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He received the Mostafa Husseini Prize for young journalists in 2017.
4- Professor of political economy at the University of Basrah.
5- Senior lecturer at Al Iraqia University, specialised

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Citizens from around the World to form a Climate Forum

Citizens from around the World to form a Climate Forum

In an INews article, Citizens from around the world to form a climate forum to look at the best ways to cut global carbon emissions by Madeleine Cuffelaborates on an idea that in this conjecture increasingly appreciated by an ever-increasing number of people all around the world. Thanks to the Mass Media that is certainly very helpful for kickstarting this mutation and perhaps help unfold all potentialities of a Global Citizens Assembly.

A factory worker from India could work shoulder to shoulder with a bus driver from France to plan how to tackle the climate crisis, organisers say.

Citizens from around the World to form a Climate Forum
Members of the citizens' assembly on climate change during their first weekend of discussions in Birmingham
Members of the UK citizens’ assembly on climate change (Photo: Fabio De Paola/PA Wire)

Citizens from around the world will be recruited at random to form a global ‘Climate Assembly’, charged with presenting world leaders with a plan for tackling climate change next year.

It could mean a bus driver from Britain, a sheep farmer from New Zealand and a factory worker from India all working together on the best way to cut global emissions.  

One thousand people will be selected at random to reflect the gender, race, age and economic make-up of the global population, organisers said. 

They will meet online next year to learn about climate change from international experts, before drawing up advice for world leaders ahead of a major UN climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.  

Smaller assemblies at a local and national level will also be held in the run-up to the summit, known as COP26, with organisers aiming for millions of people to participate in the process. 

“We will bring many new, probably previously unheard voices into the Global Assembly,” said Claire Mellier, part of the organising team. “Not all of them are going to agree on the situation we are in, or what we should do next. We will however support careful listening between people so that true respect and understanding emerges. And when this happens we know that new possibilities come to light, that transform what we can do together.” 

Gauging public opinion

Citizen’s assemblies are emerging as a popular method of gauging public opinion on tricky topics such as abortion rights and electoral reform. But it is on the topic of climate change where many think they can be most useful, giving politicians a flavour of how radical the public’s appetite for climate action really is.  

The UK and France have already held national climate assemblies considering this very issue. UK Assembly Members called for a tax frequent flyers, a ban new gas boilers, and carbon labelling on food and drink products to speed carbon cuts.  

A world first

The Global Citizens’ Assembly, which is backed by the UN, will be the first time an in international assembly has been formed. Organisers are hoping its conclusions could spark a breakthrough in international climate talks, which have spent four years bogged down in finalising the ‘rules’ for the Paris climate treaty.  

“For too long the international debate on climate has been dominated by powerful minorities,” said Rich Wilson, founder of public participation group Involve. “It’s time for that to end. The Global Citizens’ Assembly is the biggest experiment in global democracy ever attempted. An ambitious endeavor, equivalent to the crisis we face.” 

But Mr Wilson says the project needs to raise £100,000 for the project to go ahead, to pay for “logistical and technical challenges”, such as translators for participants, equipment, and even childcare for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to take part. 

Citizens from around the World to form a Climate Forum
Madeleine Cuff

TRANSCEND in Beware the Experts!

TRANSCEND in Beware the Experts!

TRANSCEND Media Service in Beware the Experts! by Naresh Jotwani tells us how ‘The world – or at least a large and dominant part of it! – is increasingly being run by so-called “experts”.’

EDITORIAL, 30 Nov 2020

The world – or at least a large and dominant part of it! – is increasingly being run by so-called “experts”, sometimes dubbed honestly as “technocrats”. Their fields of “expertise” are many, and that list is growing steadily longer. The fact is, universities and research institutions must be seen to be “torch bearers” of progress, values, knowledge, scientific inquiry, freedom, justice … or whatever other words sound good in a speech or on a website. In vicious competition for student fees, research funds, private donations and government grants, every institution must proclaim “excellence” – somehow, anyhow.

As in any other field of human endeavour, opportunities for gaming the system are many. The standard, time-tested techniques of cronyism, mutual back-scratching, feudalism, deception, hyperbole, playing to the gallery … et cetera … run rampant. These techniques are at work incessantly and brazenly, around the world, to further the careers of aggressive and ambitious old-timers, mid-lifers and new entrants.

For so-called “experts”, however, one other very special trick is also available. The ability to define ever newer areas of “expertise” and “challenges” offers an easy option not available in other areas of human endeavour. As more and more people acquire Ph.D.s and fight for success and prominence, they build ever smaller boxes around their work. Each such group dubs its small box “the next big thing”, writes a few silly papers, and makes a big show of “fake it till you make it”. If one such “bold academic initiative” does not work out too well, another appears soon with a different flavour, another catchy label, and yet another round of hype. Thus the spectacle goes on from “progress” to “more progress”.

If a manufacturer claims to have developed a better quality of soap, potential customers have right to test the product, verify the claims and decide whether to spend their hard-earned money on the new soap. Validation by prospective customers is a crucial and essential step when a new product is sought to be introduced to society.

With new and unproven academic claims, however, ordinary citizens of the society have no right to opine. This is a tragic, anomalous and therefore also unstable situation, because the public policy burdens of new theories fall almost wholly on ordinary citizens. Any intelligent citizen can study a subject and formulate a cogent opinion, but a kind of intimidating “caste system” dubs large sections of population as being incapable of questioning theories and policies which impact their lives; and thus honest public debate is avoided.

This powerful new technique of deception is based on building ever narrower boxes of specialization. Instead of thinking out of a box, these “experts” build smaller and smaller boxes around whatever they are capable of thinking after twenty plus years of “formal” education; they are masters only of intellectual fencing and pointless one-upmanship.

Ordinary people do not question these “experts” because they have naive faith in the “hallowed halls of scholarship”, being unaware of the base emotions rampant inside.

One root cause of the problem seems to be that “well-being of fellow citizens” is not even a valid subject in academia! While each “expert” is fierce in defending his or her turf, what should be the central, common denominator – the well-being of society – receives at best a passing mention in support of some fashionable theory.

***

Examples can easily be cited of “specialist experts” bringing confusion to public debate, and often also immense misery to public life. This happens either because they disagree among themselves, or because they have in mind “private” goals, not public good.

Just a few prominent examples are given here, in what should never be mistaken for an exhaustive list.

  1. The handling of the Covid 19 pandemic is a recent and glaring example. Experts in virology, public health, epidemiology, pharmaceuticals, practicing doctors, computer modellers – in short, just about every Tom, Dick and Harry – wanted to show how brilliant they were. Naturally, politicians joined in too, following the principle of “not letting any crisis go waste”. Who suffered?
  2. Institutions such as IMF are staffed by allegedly “top notch” celebrity economists – ever so articulate, ever so politically savvy. Today they recommend unrestricted money printing for one group of countries, and unrelenting austerity for another. Plenty of “fuzz factor” is hidden in all economic theories, however, to spin either approach as being right.

The sad political reality, however, cannot be found in any textbook. The first group of countries are powerful, highly developed CREDITOR countries, while the second group has impoverished DEBTOR countries. Excess money with the creditors can always be made to earn juicy returns from economies struggling under debt burdens. All this makes very good business sense for the former – the CREDITOR countries – but should economists take sides in such cruel games of global usury?

Within any economy, there is a huge divide between ground reality and the official statistics. Statistics allow politicians and “expert” economists to congratulate themselves and play the endless game of blame-passing. People’s well-being goes by default.

  1. Heartless decisions on bringing “democracy”, “freedom”, “progress” et cetera to other countries are routinely made by “experts” or “technocrats”. In reality, these people are no more than greedy, self-serving hatchet-men for ruthless power-grabbers.
  2. Financial skulduggery in the name of capitalism engages the brightest minds of a society and the most powerful computers. Tactics such as high frequency front-running and algorithmic betting bring no benefit to agriculture, or manufacturing, or education, or health care or public well-being. Indeed, a few months ago, this author had the distinct impression that Donald Trump was testing and possibly teasing stock market investors by alternately making on-again, off-again comments about the possible trade deal with China.
  3. As specialists, lawyers are a breed apart, tireless masters of evasion, innuendo and hair-splitting; truth, well-being or justice be damned. Climbing one level further up the food chain of corruption, many lobby ceaselessly for laws which subvert the public good.
  4. Much is being made of the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence (AI). A lot of it is hype, and much of it is ineffective and harmless. For example, if an AI bot sends me mostly uninteresting pieces of a news-feed, I will not bother to complain. Serious difficulties with AI will show up when it is applied in critical sectors such as health care or policing.

***

Wherever we turn, we see examples of a strong centrifugal tendency at work in human affairs, driven essentially by discontentment which compounds itself. True, holistic well-being of society is on nobody’s agenda, while the greedy behave like hyenas, tugging with bloody fangs at the remaining healthy parts of society until little remains.

Comprehending the well-being of others requires compassion – without which no amount of materialistic development, hyped-up “progress” or “research”, politics, fashion, academic claims, brilliance, spin or propaganda can serve a legitimate, durable purpose. This is the simple, central truth that all “experts” evade like the plague. The don’t “do” compassion.

This frenetic, ceaseless evasion in all directions creates a strong divisive, centrifugal tendency. The priceless core of well-being is abandoned as “experts” run ragged in every conceivable direction except towards the core of well-being and contentment.

Fortunately, for the discriminating individual, that core is ever-present, deep within – waiting patiently to be discovered and its treasure unlocked.

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Beware the Experts!

Dr Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.
Tags: ElitesHumanity

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 Nov 2020.