Megaproject mentality leads to mega-errors
May 17, 1992

After decades of championing dams that create malarial swamps, chemical plants that poison their workers, and shiny new factories that rip out the rain forest, agencies dedicated to developing the Third World have learned a lesson. Big isn't always good. Megaprojects rarely deliver what they promise. So nowadays even the World Bank will hint that E.F. Schumacher was right, small is beautiful, and putting money into a dozen little factories will do people more good than scraping it together for one giant.

Are we too proud to take the same advice?

Our government-sponsored megaprojects are revealing themselves daily as boondoggles, from a Great Whale hydroelectric complex that lost its No. 1 customer, to a Hibernia drilling platform that even major oil companies don't believe in, to a Westray coal mine that blinked at safety and cost 26 lives last week - a mini-Bhopal of the North.

Our private goliaths have soft underbellies, too. What country wants to depend on General Motors or Olympia & York when, if they sneeze, whole towns or banks may die? Yet federal policies on interest rates, taxes and free trade play to the giants.

Here's the flaw in our thinking: Each auto factory and oilfield seems to promise thousands of well-paid, secure jobs and to spin off thousands more - if it succeeds. But MPs and bureaucrats are terrible at picking winners, and dinosaur-like automakers aren't the people who'll create tomorrow's best new jobs.

Almost all the new high-paying, secure jobs of the year 2000 will come from companies that are small- or medium-sized today. Multibillion-dollar success stories like Microsoft and Genentech emerged from the medium-sized rank less than 12 years ago. These are the kind of companies that will grow while GM contracts. But they need nourishment, and the banks that were always waiting by the phone for the Reichmanns aren't anywhere near as eager to lend money to a struggling newcomer.

Governments ought to spend their mad money on making sure these smaller companies get the funds they need to grow. And here are a few suggestions:

Offer them tax loans. Revenue Canada should permit smaller companies to borrow back income taxes they owe at a competitive interest rate. Profitable companies that can't get funds from the banks can get them from the public purse, at no loss to the public.

Promote small-scale venture capital. This is being tried from Montreal - where a "loan circle" modelled on Bangladesh's Grameen bank gives micro-loans to would-be entrepreneurs - to Saskatchewan - where communities raise bond issues to invest in local business. Pooling this kind of venture capital with federal seed money would make it all go a lot farther.

Expand the enterprise centers. These are industrial parks where fledgling firms with a promising idea for software, say, or biomedical equipment can rent cheap office space, get expert advice on marketing and finance, and otherwise enjoy a nurturing nest until they take off.

Nowadays governments dole out petty cash to projects like these, while lavishing money on showpieces like Hibernia. But maybe that would change if they did a simple cost-benefit analysis. To wit, how many potential Microsofts and Genentechs does Canada lose for each Hibernia it gains?

Habash's Release: Justice proves inconvenient
February 4, 1992

An airline stewardess (London, 1978). Sixteen Puerto Rican tourists (Tel Aviv, 1972). An old woman named Dora Bloch (Entebbe, 1976). This is but a partial roster of the innocents killed by George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or by Japanese and Ugandan terrorists acting on his behalf.

Last Wednesday the killer himself fell into the hands of French authorities - and by Saturday they had let him go. Their half-hearted excuses would have been condemned had they applied to a common felon, or a psychopath, or an aging Nazi prison guard: Habash had come to France for medical treatment. He had been too weak for questioning. No one had issued warrants for his arrest.

In this case, however, no one objected. Arabs were happy to have their beloved freedom fighter back in Tunis. The French opposition lambasted the ruling Socialists - not for releasing him, but only for showing the political stupidity to admit him in the first place.

Even Israel was content to see him go. "This was not an important problem," Prime Minister Shamir explained to Le Figaro. Habash was simply a "sick man" who "does not like us very much."

You can see the reasons for their attitude: Justice would be impolitic. It would interfere with the accomplishment of a greater good.

A trial would upset France's delicate foreign policy. It might embarrass Shamir; just last Thursday he was bragging to an Israeli newspaper how efficiently his Stern Gang had assassinated Lord Moyne in 1944. It might remind a newly sympathetic world of Palestinian terrorism, and rile up Habash's admirers in the West Bank and Gaza - which everyone agrees should not be done, not now, not in the middle of peace talks.

We all read the newspapers, and we understand this kind of thinking so well we almost accept it. But it has crippled something within us that's worth far more than the greater good - our innate belief that crimes must be punished.

The "greater good" has a chequered history. In this century alone, for its sake we appeased the Nazis until 1939; fed arms to the Shah of Iran, and then to Iraq, to fight off the ayatollahs; fought in Vietnam; and from Hitler's time to Senator McCarthy's to this moment, turned a blind eye when rights and laws interfered with some abstract calculation of what was best.

But where do the great betrayals of humanity start, if not with petty ones like these?

Relearning the value of neighbors
August 16, 1992

North Americans move. It may be our signature trait. We have mythologized the highway and the wide-open space, and erected vast networks of long-distance phone lines, truck stops and motels to support the habit. We have done it most obviously because our continent is big, but as Karl Marx would remind us, above everything else we've done it for money.

Simply put, labor mobility is the great source of our wealth. Hardship drives the unemployed from depressed areas to bustling cities or lonely mining towns - places hungry for workers - and up goes our GNP. Ambition drives people to earn extra money, so they can move from old neighborhoods to comfortable suburbs, and up goes the GNP again.

You can point to CN Towers and coughing smokestacks and dizzy stock prices as evidence of our prosperity, but the most relevant evidence is this: Within the next five years, more than two in five Canadians will move to a different home. And they'd better. Because if we stopped moving so fast and so often, our affluence would dry up.

The tragedy, of course, is that moving about also makes us professional strangers; "mobile" is in many ways just a pretty synonym for "uprooted." Unlike Africans or Latinos or the Canadians of 50 years ago, few of us spend our adulthoods among the people we grew up with. Few of us are even intimate with the majority of our neighbors. In many suburbs, we do little more than wave hello to each other in 7-11s and video rental stores.

That the personal cost of this cocooning is high has been remarked on for three decades. It's summed up in the title of a '60s best-seller, The Pursuit of Loneliness. But North Americans seldom change their habits because of personal suffering alone; they change them because the habits just don't work. And now at last we're learning that a society of little cells, moving about from place to place, served by faceless banks and faceless firefighters, and police officers in faceless cruisers, just can't survive an outbreak of social disease.

Look at crime. For years we've tried to leave crime fighting to professionals we don't know, and yet violent crime has blossomed. Now the fashionable law-enforcement theory is community policing - putting cops on the beat who know the personal lives of the residents. And earlier this month, 8,500 Neighborhood Watch groups celebrated their proven tactic against crime - simply introducing neighbors to each other and getting them to mind each other's business. We've relearned a lesson at least as old as Genesis: Nothing good will come if we aren't our brothers' keepers.

Look to other societal illnesses and you'll see the same pattern. A black Chicago sociologist blames inner-city stagnation in part on the flight of upwardly mobile blacks to the suburbs, where they may lead faceless civil rights organizations but can't directly influence their peers. Education studies show tht the major difference between a kid who succeeds and one who fails isn't the quality of his or her school but the presence of an adult who cares for him or her personally.

Perhaps if we're aware of what we need, we'll invent ways of sinking roots quickly and making them deep. People must be involved in each other's lives if our cities are to survive and prosper; social diseases fester in the empty spaces between us.

Sea Sacrifice: The Dutch must be crazy, too
August 12, 1992

Imagine for a moment that you are a humble African, say a Bamoun Muslim living in western Cameroon. You have heard about "western civilization" most of your life. Fed on French textbooks and Hollywood movies, you vaguely think how much luckier you'd be to live in one of the capital cities of Europe or North America, where all the wealth, ideas and inventions are.

And then one day, in August 1992, a Dutch newspaper lands at your feet with this headline: "Holland plans National Gift to the Sea." You read on, and discover that a group called the Cargo Foundation is soliciting $654,000 in donations in order to build a 30-metre high, 800-tonne steel statue of a man, stuff it with 20,000 loaves of bread, tow it from Amsterdam to the North Sea, and sink it. Actually, even as you read, hundreds of volunteers are stuffing bread into the hollow man.

You read that, in spite of protests from 33,500 Dutch citizens, a couple of government ministries, Christian groups worried about graven images, and a Greenpeace chapter worried about pollution, the Cargo Foundation and its numerous supporters press ahead, saying their critics "have just misunderstood the whole idea. This is an offering to the sea, in return for all we've taken from it over the years. It's a positive act, not a piece of senseless vandalism."

This startles you. Being a Muslim, you don't believe in sacrificing bread to a sea god. And having read a few stray western newspapers before, you know that practically no one in the West does either. You know that civil wars are ravaging southern Europe and east Africa, that prisoners of conscience rot in Chinese jails, that pollution is killing off German forests and Canadian whales - and yet that, while these are going on, artists like Christo spend gobs of money building fields of huge umbrellas, and affluent Dutchmen send perfectly good food to the bottom of the sea and call it a "positive act."

Filled with compassion, you walk down to the town bookstore and buy copies of the Koran, the Bible and a few paperbacks by Shaw and Dickens - books African high schoolers read. You send them off to Amsterdam, addressed to whom it may concern. When the customs official asks about the contents, you write simply: "Bread for the hollow man."

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