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Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Struggle for Meaning

The struggle for meaning - a particularly post-modern, first world preoccupation. In the old days, we worried about finding food or shelter or surviving war and disease. My parents worried about paying the bills, putting all they had together on their marriage bed and finding that it totalled $10. Fortune was good to our family; Dad had a government job during the quarter century of almost continual recession, which engulfed my country. We were lucky, Dad always told us.

Of course, it doesn’t always feel that way. Maslow’s hierarchy kicks in and a childhood not worrying about food or shelter, leads to an adulthood of worrying about what’s missing – the search for meaning in what I do – which is a little more complex as a problem, than mere survival. But its not just meaning I crave, I have a hungry mind that needs stimulation, needs to be fed with ideas and exposed to new things. In my younger days, this insatiable need drove me many different countries sampling all of what the world had to offer…soaking it all up like parched earth drinks the first rains.

But soon merely moving through the world was not enough, so I stopped and found intellectual stimulation I needed in research work but the need for meaning would soon overtake. Working hours take up the vast majority of our day, so I’ve never agreed with the philosophy that you need not find meaning through your job. I don’t make any judgment on those that fulfil themselves primarily outside of work, simply that such a strategy has never worked for me – in any case, not in the long term.

So I continued searching and it left for a rather patchwork career, at least compared with ‘straight path’ preferred by most European employers. I’m still on the search for meaning in my work. I found it for a while in Rwanda, as I delighted in learning the intricacies, politics and trade-offs inherent in running a country and learned a lot about myself. But in the end, I saw that the system in which I was taking part was deeply flawed.

I thought of the hundreds and thousands of people all trying to tackle global issues in aid and development, and the millions more who want a level playing field and not a handout. And the rest, those in affluent societies with a social conscious who think they can solve knotty issues with plastic bangles of many colours, while their retirement plans depend on blue chip stocks remaining blue chip.

The companies behind these stocks remain investment grade by delivering growth, often at all costs and usually not taking risks with countries and regions that desperately need investment. CEOs do not need lessons in Corporate Responsibility, it’s the faceless intuitional investors that do, and, in the end, they work on behalf of millions of ordinary people in the developed world. Unfortunately, when the choice is starvation far away or perceived threat to my own comfortable retirement, we are all selfish animals.

So, the answer is not a simplistic vision of “more and better aid”, if we are really serious about redressing inequalities, nothing less than a complete systemic overhaul will suffice. This will be a long process requiring a generation of attention, not the fleeting fashion statement of multi-coloured bracelets.

Sometimes I wish I could return to the time of blissful ignorance about the state of the world, but the blue pill option is long gone. In its place, however, is the intellectual capacity, the moral voracity and the creative tenacity to do something about it. Fixing it requires a systemic change, with corporations remembering that they too are part of society, NGOs been shaken out of their sclerotic moulds and governments truly working for the good of their people. And fixing it will require more and broader dialogue on tackling thorny global issues such as economic growth, hunger, access to infrastructure and long term security.

Nowadays, more than ever, we need ways to keep the global dialogue going. We risk to having much of the economic progress of recent years take a giant leap backwards if countries and regions panic and resort to protectionism. Without coordination and discussion the financial meltdown as the potential to send us hurtling back to the 1970’s.

Change is difficult and systemic change will require strong and coordinated leadership across many different domains over a sustained period of time. It will require hard work and patience in equal measure. But this is exactly the kind of meaty problem that I long to get my teeth into and in this I find meaning: a chance to influence, a chance to find the questions that really matter, to play a part in creating a new forum to get things done.

In summary, there are enough global problems to keep me up at night, what I want now is something to get me up in the morning – a chance to work on something truly important and meaningful.