Pink Slippers and Platinum: Governance Failure and the Decline of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in South Africa

South Africa’s national defence force was once perhaps highly rated; recently it is facing ridicule and concern. Ridicule, as a Lieutenant-Colonel was seen sporting pink slippers with her official uniform in public. According to the UK’s Guardian Newspaper, “It is not an image of top guns defending African skies that is likely to deter would-be foreign invaders”. Concern, as an officer borrowed an air force plane for personal use to visit a friend in neighbouring Botswana.

South Africa’s platinum mines were also once highly rated. Until the Marikana Massacre of 16 August 2012 when the South African Police killed 34 striking workers, apparently shooting many in the back, interfering with evidence after the shootings, and charging the mine workers (the victims) with the deaths of their fellows. While it is the police, and not the mines that are now facing an inquiry, the context of South African mining remains problematic, despite a decade of the longest commodity boom in recent history.

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Addis Ababa: What Drives the Diplomatic Capital of Africa?

Find a good map and you’ll see that Ethiopia sits on a similar latitude as Colombia, both firmly embedded in the tropics. Moreover, being the 26th largest country in the world, this African nation is almost the same size as Colombia.

Fortunately for its inhabitants, a large part of its territory includes the high Ethiopian massif, a mountain range system soaring between 1500 and 3000 metres above sea level, boasting blessed fertile lands. This explains why some of its most important products are – once again similar to Colombia – coffee, beans and sugar cane. If that’s not enough to ignite your curiosity, here’s another fact: the capital, Addis Ababa, stands 2400 metres above sea level (much like Bogotá, located ‘2600 metres closer to the stars’).

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The Mythical City of Curitiba: Still a Model of Sustainability?

Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná, remains in the minds of many as the great Latin American triumph in urban sustainability. Although these types of city brands are hard to attain, they can easily be lost.

There are many reasons why Curitiba Flickr / Mathieu Struckbecame recognized as the world’s most sustainable regional capital. Firstly, the urban revolution in the city started around the mid 1960s with a plan that sought to encourage urban growth corridors along mass transit routes. The plan emerged under the military dictatorship, and was effectively rolled out – and respected – until the late 1990s.

The continuity in public policy implementation owes much to the fact that the same political group remained in power for so long; a group that shared the ideas of the legendary planner/politician Jaime Lerner. Thus, Curitiba achieved the still remarkable 54m² of green space per capita, collected 100% of door-to-door recyclable waste, and introduced the famous bendy buses that years later inspired the Bogotá Transmilenio.

Nowadays though, any foreign visitor to the city must wonder Flickr / M.Struckwhether the famous sustainability postcard remains the reality for Curitiba. The first impression when walking its streets is the outrageous number of cars, which have gone clearly exceeded the capacity of the roads. Today, Curitiba has the highest number of cars per capita in Brazil: one for every 1.4 inhabitants! The few bicycles roaming the streets have no choice but to use the restricted network of bike paths, originally designed to only connect the parks.

The famous tube stations and bendy buses are now overwhelmed by the sheer number of people moving en masse from the 13 surrounding municipalities to the city Flickr / Mathieu Struckcentre. Obviously, thefts are as frequent as in the subways of Paris or New York, and the lack of comfort – which has become the norm in URBS-administered public transport – succeeds in alienating car drivers.

Although the density and good maintenance of green areas are truly unparalleled in Latin America, challenges are increasing. Experts at the Catholic University of Paraná tell me that about 60,000 people in inner Curitiba lack access to the sewerage system (partly due to political infighting between various layers of government). Meanwhile experts from the city’s famous urban planning agency (the IPPUC) anonymously tell me that a decade ago local politicians dropped long-term urban planning, in favour of profit making from short-term elections. Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the metropolitan area of Curitiba only guarantees more chaos in the future.

Despite these problems, the city remains beautiful. It exhibits the characteristic incoherent order of many Latin American cities, featuring eclectic façades filled with long blocks of workshops, training agencies for models, and traditional bakeries, alongside banks with modern marble floors. Often, pavements are overrun by the roots of the araucária tree (fully protected against any logging), while the streets are covered with yellow and pink flowers that fall from the ubiquitous ipê trees. Unfortunately, this pedestrian space is also infested by parked cars, and drivers that leave their buildings as if they never imagined that a pedestrian would cross their path; a characteristic lack of civic culture that is commonplace in this continent.

While feasting on a feijoada – a local dish of stewed beans, beef and pork – I could not help but notice that a large number of candidates for the local October elections have taken the bicycle as banner campaigns. So the trusty bike rejoins the political scene amid talk of the rising price of gasoline and copious congestion. Could this be a way to revive the prestige of this wonderful city?

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 13 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Mathieu Struck / Carlos Cadena Gaitán. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

‘Subway-free’ Buenos Aires

The cosmopolitan capital of Argentina is one of the largest cities in the world. Every day its transport system needs to cope with over 13 million people living and moving around its metropolitan area.

Even having one of the largest metros in Latin America, for years, it has failed to provide enough capacity to move all the citizens who depend on it.The subway opened in 1913, in what was the first underground system in our continent.

Today it is a vital artery for a chaotic Buenos Aires, which has traditionally glorified the private car. Besides congested second level freeways, the city also boasts a couple of unusual urban roads: the widest (‘9 de Julio’) and the longest (Rivadavia) in the world.

It is not sufficient to navigate through the traffic jams, which are so characteristic of most great cities of the world, to really understand the mobility challenge there. For the authentic ‘porteño’ commuter experience, you need to take the subway during rush hour.

As the lines of the subway system are connected with several other commuter rail lines and bus stations, carriages soon fill up during the first few stops. One must pray for a miracle to find a space starting from the third or fourth train station. The crowding is acute and the lack of lack of personal space oppressive.

However, the system works well enough. The locals, though blinded by their uncomfortable journeys, still reach their destinations. Now, imagine this great city without the metro – would it continue to function?

Since political fights have no limits in creating disruptions, the great fear of many came about during the first two weeks of August: the subway went on strike and closed down completely for 10 days! The urban mobility system collapsed (obviously).

Fortunately, since the last subway strike, a new mode of transport has been strengthened in Buenos Aires. In recent years they have built around 80 kilometres of protected bike paths (i.e. permanent structures with high kerbs to protect cyclists from traffic). These are part of an initial plan to build 100 interconnected kilometres, mainly aiming at universities and public buildings.

With the strike, many ordinary citizens decided it was the perfect excuse to dust off their bikes, or to rent one of the thousand public bicycles, with which the city complements its network of bike paths. Some local newspapers reported a doubling in demand for these public bikes during the strike; a pleasant surprise.

When the strike finally ended, having plunged the Buenos Aires streets into unprecedented chaos, no politician was left unscathed. According to a survey carried out by Opinión Autenticada, 40.3% of locals held the national government responsible for the subway strike, while 28.2% blamed the city government.

The political fight during the conflict, sustained between President Kirchner and Buenos Aires Mayor Macri (former president of Boca Juniors football club), left no one unscathed. By contrast, it only reminds us of the importance of shielding urban transport systems from the strategic interests of politicians. After all, it is only us – ordinary citizens – who lose out in these kinds of crisis.

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 27 August 2012. Images: Flickr / Michele Molinari / Eric Illuminaut. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

The Blue Economy: The Only Sustainable Option?

It’s no secret that our Earth is moving towards an environmental catastrophe. Many of us try to effect change locally in our own communities, but more powerful forces are at work. Forces that put economic gain before the health of our planet.

Let’s not lie to ourselves: this Aggressive consumerismbeautiful planet of ours is run by the forces of the market economy. Any business student can blurt out the mantra: you have to compete in the global market, produce at the lowest marginal cost, sell at the maximum possible price, focus on core competences, seek economies of scale, and destroy competitors.

The Chicago School of Economics convinced us that the government should not interfere in this perfect dance of the market. Later, marketing geniuses invented the concepts of Corporate Social Responsibility and the triple bottom line in full cost accounting; all to sell the idea that even a company which destroys moorland and forest reserves can also be good, so long as they give a little to charity.

What’s the end result of these decades of ‘economic growth’? Millions of people leaving their rural communities and moving to city slums, mass unemployment (from Colombia to Morocco), an inequity that hits us daily at every traffic light, a cult of consumerism that has created unprecedented debt, and record-breaking destruction of our natural resources. Are there still people who think this system is working?

There is, however, a new economic model breaking ground in our globalized world: the Blue Economy. Apart from proposing a radical break with the green movement, it provides a completely different perspective on the struggle for sustainability.The great green paradox declares that what is good for us and the environment is very expensive, while what is bad for us and our environment is cheap (think about sodas vs. natural juices).

Under the Blue Economy model, the idea is not to try to reduce or solve pollution after the ecological damage has been done. On the contrary, it aims to redefine the concept of waste via a self-sufficient and dynamic approach. It also aims to prevent the use of materials which can only be used once, including oil.

We’ve already seen many successes from the Blue Economy. From using coffee grounds to grow mushrooms at home (remember that in our morning cup of coffee we use only 0.2% of the actual product); to using hot water, which is normally wasted in beer production, for fish farming; to large crops of algae fed with carbon dioxide, already being generated in megafactories. Experts say this algae could become the ‘super-food’ of the future, thanks to its high content of spirulina (a nutritious high-protein food supplement).

The Blue Economy is based on the power of entrepreneurship and local creativity. It seeks to break the rules we have given the system of global competition, to convert industries considered non-competitive by the standards of the market economy into viable models which preserve our world. This involves the creation of new systems made from existing
resources in our local communities. By changing our concept of waste and resource use as complementary processes, it aims to generate multiple revenue streams which can ensure a low price for what is good, and to deliver what is vital, as free.

I had the opportunity to meet the leader of this movement during a recent trip to Hungary. Although born in Belgium and living in South Africa, this entrepreneurial genius is close to Colombia through some family ties and his work at the world famous Gaviotas Experimental Centre. Find out more about Gunter Pauli and his foundation, sponsored by the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Tokyo, at

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 16 July 2012. Image: Flickr / Burtonwood & Holmes. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.

Sustainable Cities Need Citizen Action

Just how sustainable your city is begins at your own doorstep. As a citizen, you play your role directly through your own lifestyle, but you also need to hold you representatives to account.

It was clear Flickr Large Minorityduring the first quarter of the year that bicycles were not a priority for the city administration in Medellín, Colombia. There were no hints from city officials responsible for the 4-year city development plan, that the bike would even be considered as part of an integrated transport system for the metropolitan region.

However, in late May 2012, during the final debate for the development plan in the city council, an engaged group of citizens managed – against all odds – to ensure the final text included pro-bicycle policies.

Yet beyond the shameful stance towards pedestrians and cyclists from the city Departments of Transport and Public Works, what really troubled me was the general reticence of fellow citizens.

No city in the world should allow people to continuously criticize public decisions – unless these criticisms are accompanied by organized citizen-led proposals; a crucial phenomenon in kickstarting democracy. This apathy is a clear sign of what political scientist Federico Hoyos calls ‘appeased democracy’.

It’s easy to curse the poor sustainability of our cities, yet very difficult to contribute with evidence-based proposals to create better societies, and even harder to lead by example.

Have you gone to the trouble of visiting your local councillor’s office, to share your views on mobility or pollution problems? Have you read the development plan of your city or region, and banded together with friends to communicate en masse with the pertinent officials? Of course many will say ‘they are not going to listen’. But that’s the oldest and laziest excuse in the book.

With a strategy of citizen mobilization (in person and via social networks) we managed to revive bicycles in Medellín for this 4-year term. Just to clarify, we’re not talking about a full-scale cycling revolution Bogotá-style, but it does set a crucial precedent for citizen participation in public decision-making.

Moreover, in promoting better conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, it’s clear that we not only have a long road ahead, but that clearing this requires active civic participation.

Thanks to support from the teams of councillors Bernardo Alejandro Guerra, Yefferson Miranda and Miguel Quintero, a paragraph was included in the final version of the development plan which outlines specific strategies for the promotion of bicycles as a sustainble mode of urban transport.

These strategies include the construction of appropriate parking, the development of pro-biking campaigns, the extension of the EnCicla pilot programme (public bicycle sharing), and the building of more bike paths in conjunction with the Metropolitan Area and the Metro.

We also received an official statement from the Department of Public Works, commiting itself to the construction of missing sections in the city’s existing bicycle route (around 1.7 km).

Citizens: it’s up to you to keep an eye on these projects and to push – with concrete arguments – for better policies on sustainability, now!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 4 June 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Large Minority

Playing God for Sustainability? Perspectives from Sussex

In May 2012, Ajay Thutupalli joined two events at the University of Sussex in Britain: a Summer School on ‘Pathways to Sustainability’, and a ‘D. Phil Day’ where fellows share their research with peers and the academic community. Below Ajay shares his thoughts on the events and ultimately asks ‘Who are we to play God with development and sustainability?’

With its ‘pathways approach’, the STEPS Centre is broadening perspectives in research and policy for sustainability.  It stresses the principle of ‘plurality’, aiming to correct the narrow top-down syndrome of policy makers by opening the discourse for alternate perspectives on pathways to sustainability. In particular, this ideology criticizes the assumption that a particular dominant pathway is the only way forward; for example GM research in agriculture.

What this highlights is UN Photo Fred Noy the importance of policy discourses for debating the various ‘narratives’ that emerge in the complex world about the pathways to sustainability. Alternate pathways under this theme need not be highways but can also be the ‘road-less-travelled’, which may emerge from remote settings but have enough merits to scale up.

On the agenda were case studies on the pathways approach, including innovation pathways for maize in Kenya, policy pathways for improved waste management in peri-urban Delhi. In the first case, we looked at the innovation pathways that fall under the 2D space of low-to-high yielding maize on the horizontal axis and low-to-high external inputs on the vertical axis. The relevant stakeholders then analyzed their merits and demerits.

In the case of waste management, we saw the alternate policy pathways, which consider the local technological options, increase the levels of privatization and decentralization. This contrasts with the dominant pathway, which tries to strengthen the formalization of the existing system.

Further, lines of enquiry that involve combinations of methods of enquiry that help us to appreciate the alternate pathways to sustainability were proposed. Questioning the ‘process of policy making’ if it excludes the alternate framings of problems and solutions by under-privileged actors is stressed.

These arguments are very important given the dilemmas policy makers are facing with ‘sustainability’ on the one hand and ‘economic growth’ on the other. Because the pathways approach seems to apply the principle of plurality to policy makers, researchers and consumers alike, the question arises ‘at what level of the agent hierarchy can this idea be upheld?’

Imagine a policy maker sitting at her desk choosing among the alternate pathways for decreasing the CO2 emissions in the short term. She is not allowed to choose n number of pathways simply because she is responsible for not leaving the world as it is. It is equally difficult for consumers. Not every consumer can allow for plurality in his choice of cars.

It is difficult to change individuals’ behaviour and lifestyles. So the bigger question is ‘how can this plurality be implemented at different levels’? Because not all research seems fitting for ‘appreciating alternate pathways’ and many scientists whether social or natural break their heads exploring the merits and demerits of a particular pathway.

There is however a body of social and natural science research, which explores two or more pathways towards sustainability. Some of this research certainly fits into the feasibility of pathways argument. Yet in this particular context, social science research is more privileged than its counterpart natural science.

If the whole idea is about including as many as possible alternate pathways (which are usually ignored) in the policy discussions then it is a powerful idea. But it’s a complex and difficult task to list diverse pathways to sustainability (both dominant and dormant), evaluating their merits and demerits in order to arrive at a consensus. How close is carrying out this task to playing God? And how close can playing God get us to leaving the world as it is?

This brings us back to the questions on role play in the policy making process.  We have the natural and social scientists, policy makers (often elected legislators or administrative beaurocrats), and the public. In the times of heated debates on policy making for sustainable futures, the question that arises is ‘who should play the role of a policy maker’?

Should the policy maker play her own role? Is she capable of understanding the rigour of evidence-based science or innovation policy? How can we remain confident that political interests do not influence this policy discourse? How important is the uncertainty (unknown unknowns) in this discourse? What about the abuse of scientific evidence? Is the policy maker capable of understanding these issues? If not who should take over?

Should the scientist take over? If yes, should it be a natural scientist or a social scientist? Or should the common man decide on the science policy for sustainability? Should we completely drop the role of a policy maker? The fundamental difference between playing these roles as I see it is in the philosophy of the roles itself. So what are the philosophies of each of these roles?

A Common man’s philosophy as I see it would be ‘Do your duty (choose a pathway) and leave the rest to nature’; that of an enlightened one or a Guru would be ‘try to realize the plurality (acknowledge diverse pathways) and if possible throw light on at least one thread (pathway) to Nirvana’ (which here we can liken to sustainability).

I do not entirely know the philosophy of being a God.  Is it the same as being a policy maker? We often see scientists playing the roles of a ‘Common man’ or a ‘Guru’. That is, they stick to a particular pathway which they believe will take them home. Others, while acknowledging that multiple pathways exist, strive for deeper insights into the success or failure of a particular pathway. So is it really possible for scientists to play policy maker (God)?

Coming to the role of a social scientist, should she be playing a ‘Common man’ or a ‘Guru’? Can she ever play ‘God’?  If yes, then how? And who should play God more often? Is it the policy maker, the scientist or the common man? In this context, Mark Henderson (see ‘The Geek Manifesto: Why Science matters’) says scientists or people with science backgrounds should be given the power of policy making, as they better appreciate the scientific vigour of evidence-based policy making.

While Dr. Richard Tol remarkably opines “There are always the questions of ‘What if?’, ‘So what?’, and ‘What to do?’ in policy making. ‘What if?’ seeks to answer what happens if we take this route. ‘So what?’ tries to provide the implications for the society. ‘What to do?’ has to do with which pathway should be chosen. Natural scientists like to answer the ‘What if?’; Social scientists, ‘So what?’; but then who should answer ‘What to do?’”. The policy maker? In other words, who should play which role? Who should play God?

The lectures on ‘Green Economy’ by Dr. Tim Jackson, ‘Eco-citizenship’ by Dr. Andy Dobson and ‘The greening of social democracy’ by Dr. Michael Jacobs raised similar questions. Is it rational to ask individuals to come together with sacrifice and plurality to build a green economy? Is this not asking them to raise their level of consciousness from being common men towards playing other roles? How can we do that?

Lacking any divine inspiration myself, let me posit this final piece of logic. If we can safely assume that God would be infinitely multi-faceted, then we can safely assume that policy makers should draw from a plurality of sources and stakeholders.

by Ajay Thutupalli, PhD fellow, UNU-MERIT. Image: UN Photo / Fred Noy.