Walking a fine line between anarchy and inertia


IN Moliere's comedy Le Gentilhomme the uncouth Jourdain is stunned to discover that, known to himself, he has been speaking for 40 years. Many Irish people will be no less surprised to discover that we have been, at least for the last five years, practising social and political innovation.

A recent OECD report, written by one of America's leading economic thinkers, Charles Sabel, suggests that in the Area Based Partnerships, the local development agencies which have developed all over Ireland since 1991, may be the seeds of ideas about unemployment, democracy and social development from which the rest of the world can learn.

Sabel points to the reason we are so bad at realising that we might be doing something right. We have turned a history of economic under development in the past into a homily about the future. We tell ourselves a story about how things have been and draw from it fatalistic lessons about how they will remain.

Our orthodox economists couldn't see the potential of what the Area Based Partnerships were doing because it didn't accord with their homilies. A new decentralised economy was coming into being, but "Irish observers in a good position to know did not expect to find it, and had to convince themselves it could truly be there once the experience of the partnerships was reported to them."

WHAT is important about Sabel's report is that it suggests that the old homilies are losing their meaning. His relative optimism about Ireland is based on the fact that some of the past failures are becoming irrelevant.

We never managed to build a mass production economy, and that was bad. But the mass production model is itself becoming outdated, replaced by new, more decentralised and more flexible models. We may not have stopped committing the old sins, but the Vatican Council of global economic development has downgraded them from mortal to venial.

And conversely, some of the things that we have had for a long time - local solidarity, for instance - have become, without our fully realising it, good habits.

At one level, Sabel's report could encourage a certain kind of feckless complacency. What it suggests, though he puts it more politely, is that we have arrived at something innovative and potentially exciting, not by careful logical planning but by ignoring some obvious problems and hoping for the best.

The Area Based Partnerships are anomalies. Their existence has depended on a willingness to take a breath and jump in, without stopping to check the depth of the water or the direction of the current. They control public funds - mostly from Brussels, but in many cases from the State also - without being democratically accountable in any clear way.

Their relationship to local government is rather ad hoc. Their functions overlap in confusing ways with those of other public bodies. They shouldn't work.

What Sabel suggests, though, is that we have stumbled into some kind of third way between free market anarchy and statist inertia. The Area Based Partnerships, he points out, blur "familiar distinctions between public and private, national and local, and representative and participative democracy." And as it happens, this kind of confusion is not, in Brian Friel's words, an ignoble condition just now.

By bringing together private enterprise, local government, community groups and State agencies, they have developed a "kind of participatory reform of established institutions that bypasses most formal democratic procedures."

SABEL points out that the Area Based Partnerships got their chance, not because the State was strong and vigorous, but for exactly opposite reasons.

Local government had atrophied. National government had consistently failed to spread the benefits of economic growth. Yet, by coming late in the day, local initiatives in Ireland had the advantage of being a response to the new conditions of the global economy rather than to the old ones of the 1950s.

This, Sabel says, doesn't mean that the Irish partnerships don't have fundamental problems. But it does mean that they have had a "speed and clarity of purpose" in figuring out their role that compares very favourably with other OECD countries. What happened is that the partnerships quickly found their way to "solutions that draw on techniques still regarded as experimental in many large firms".

And this has led to tangible successes: they have managed to train six times more people, and assist four times more local businesses, than anyone envisaged when they were set up.

Giving local groups their head and not worrying too much about Democratic niceties seems to have been, in the short term, remarkably successful. But it has a drawback. After some time - and five years down the road that time has been reached - you have to start thinking about what has worked and what hasn't.

You have to make sure that the experience of the successful partnerships is shared with the others. And you have to show people that voluntary commitment and community solidarity can pay off.

You have to combine, in other words, innovation and entrepreneurship with democratic accountability. And that, says Sabel, is what we have been very bad at doing. He issues a warning that what we stumbled on almost without noticing may be lost in the same way. If, he says, the problems have not been addressed by 1999, when the EU structural funds run out, the whole process may collapse, with little chance of starting it again.

Preventing that from happening means that the official system has to catch up with what the Area Based Partnerships have done, and integrate their innovations into a coherent, democratic and accountable structure. Far from encouraging complacency, the success of an idea that could not be comprehended by the established logic of politics and economics should point up the rather frightening inadequacy of the orthodoxies and the need to change them fast.

We have three years before the Brussels money runs out, and a critical choice to make in that short time. The veteran Dublin community activist Mick Rafferty defines it well in his contribution to a book, Partnership in Action, recently published by the Community Workers' Co Operative: "We have a choice to work together to plug the leaks in our society, or, when the ship starts sinking, throw darts at the other dinghies."

Sabel's report suggests that, by rather despairingly deciding to trust the stowaways who have been in the hold all along, we have found at least some of the tools for taking the first option.