“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” (Back to the Future – 1985)

So much has been written of late about the disruption and subsequent pain that the world has experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have died. Many are hurting. Still more are frustrated by the precautions that are needed to ward off the disease – like social distancing, wearing masks, not being able to attend large gatherings, etc. Livelihoods have been affected adversely and many have now also been thrust into extreme poverty. The virus has indeed impacted our lives negatively.

While some parts of the world have moved into second or third surges of the virus, even experiencing some degree of enforced lockdown again, many governments are attempting to find ways to kick-start economies to protect the livelihoods of their citizens – not an easy task at all. Most approaches, unfortunately, seem to be focusing on attempts to restart business and activity as we knew it before – the same approaches that inevitably empowered and enriched some (the fortunate) and disempowered and alienated others (the unfortunate). These “approaches” are not sustainable.

In the days of the ancient Romans, the Emperor used, amongst others, the strategy of road-building to scale his empire. His road-building crews worked tirelessly to establish a vast network of highways to provide accessibility to the outermost regions of his growing kingdom (in some regions, canals were used on account of the availability of water, e.g. canals in the present day Netherlands – see photograph taken in Utrecht of unearthed Roman cargo ship – almost 2 000 years old). Some of the reasons included the following:

  • Ease of access for the Roman centurions and other troops to every quarter of the empire
  • Ease of travel (by walking or riding a horse or in a chariot or by sailing in a boat) for those needing to get to another city
  • Ease of passage for supplies – food or building materials
  • Enhancement of communication

The Roman Empire ultimately fell, however, for telling reasons:

  • The lack of competence of some of the rulers (emperors)
  • Internal infighting and struggles for power
  • The health and numbers of the Roman population
  • Religious changes of the period
  • The uprising of those who had been subjugated by the Romans
  • The lack of efficiency of the civil administration

The problems of power struggles, leadership integrity and competence issues, disrespect and the  devaluation of the dignity of many, and service delivery issues were not only experienced in the ancient world – we experience exactly the same issues in our much more sophisticated world today. Perhaps those in government leadership positions need to take the following concerns into account as they design ways to kick-start their respective economies:

  1. Leadership competence – “back to school” for all politicians to develop leadership and interpersonal/communication skills (not just oratory ability), like the ability to listen well, to demonstrate empathy, to build cultures based on respect and trust, etc.
  2. Governance – ethical behaviour, transparency and the weeding out of corruption and fraud
  3. Inclusiveness – finding ways to get all citizens working together, getting them involved in building the country and being part of creating a sustainable future
  4. Job creation – creative approaches where community leadership is involved in finding work opportunities relevant to their respective contexts
  5. Relevant and intensive education efforts – huge investment to grow the citizens so that they are able to grow themselves
  6. Valuing diversity – governments should be fully representative of the diversity of their respective countries, making sure to hire appropriately to achieve this
  7. The glass ceiling – a deliberate process of having a 50/50 gender representation at all levels of government structures (currently in the world, it would seem that women anyway are leading their countries far better than most male leaders)

The movie, “Back to the Future”, was right: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”. We don’t need more of the same disrespectful systems of the past to kick-start economies. Governments need to plan for a sustainable inclusion of everyone – demonstrating respect for citizens and the environment authentically. Good oratory on its own is not sustainable – we also need integrity and action!

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